‘Serious Errors’ in Research Linking Deaths to Red Meat

(The Times) Two leading scientific organizations have backed Irish scientists who are campaigning for The Lancet to correct a study that linked eating unprocessed red meat with deaths from cancer.

The World Cancer Research Fund and the Academy of Nutrition Sciences, both based in London, have written an open letter to the medical journal expressing their support for scientists from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), University College Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast who uncovered what they claimed were serious errors in the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study.

Two years ago the latest update of the study, which is produced by hundreds of scientists worldwide, including some from University College Cork, reported that almost 900,000 deaths across the globe in 2019 were caused by eating red meat. This was 36 times higher than the previous GBD estimate for 2017.

The study said it had identified causal relationships between eating red meat and coronary heart disease, breast cancer and strokes, on top of links already established with diabetes and colon cancer.

The GBD research has a significant influence on public health policy internationally, including at EU level, and its findings on red meat were cited last year in England’s National Food Strategy.

The Irish scientists, along with colleagues from Belgium and Australia, queried several of the findings, particularly those on breast cancer and ischaemic strokes. They noted that the study had failed to take into account the nutritional benefits of red meat as a source of vitamins, iron and protein, that should be weighed against any risks.

The World Cancer Research Fund and Academy of Nutrition Sciences agreed that the study’s estimate of the burden of disease linked with red meat was “implausible.” The fund said that it would not recommend complete avoidance of red meat, as it was “an important source of several nutrients” in many diets worldwide. Avoiding red meat entirely would be “unrealistic” and “carries a risk of nutritional deficiency” that was “judged to outweigh future cancer risks,” it said.

In response to the Irish scientists’ criticism, the GBD’s authors admitted that there was a “clear protective relationship between red meat intake and haemorrhagic stroke,” that they said would be reflected in the next update to the study. They also plan to reduce their estimate of the number of deaths attributable to red meat.

Alice Stanton, professor of pharmacy and biomolecular science at the RCSI, said that promising changes in the next version of the study was not enough and The Lancet needed to correct these “confirmed and serious errors” in the 2019 study or retract it entirely. Stanton said that if it did not do so, the medical journal was allowing the GBD to bypass ethics guidelines.

The Lancet said this weekend that the GBD study had been published “following independent, external peer review” and it welcomed discussion and debate as “an important part of the scientific process.”

In her initial correspondence with The Lancet, Stanton declared that she was a part-time employee of Devenish Nutrition, an agricultural-technology and animal-feed company in which she also holds shares.

One of the co-authors of the open letter, Christopher Elliott, of Queen’s, declared grants to his research institute from Devenish. Both stated that those interests were unrelated to their position on the GBD study.

Reporting from The Times.