Major scientific paper set to backtrack on negative red meat health claims

The 2019 “global burden of disease” (GBD) study published earlier this year in the influential scientific journal The Lancet is expected to make substantial revisions to claims linking red meat consumption to worldwide deaths.

The study published a thirty-sixfold increase in the number of deaths directly linked to red meat consumption globally from 2017 to 2019 and has since received substantial backlash within the scientific research community questioning the validity of the results.

The global burden of disease study is an annual scientific paper that aims to be “the most comprehensive and systematic worldwide assessment of mortality and disease and the risk factors associated with them.” Findings from the GBD carry significant weight and are often used at government levels worldwide to implement dietary and health policy.

Controversy arose following the publication of the GBD 2019 study which claimed deaths due to red meat consumption had increased from 25,000 cases to 896,000 cases from 2017 to 2019, a thirty-sixfold increase. This rapid increase caused red meat consumption to be ranked as the fifth-leading dietary risk factor in death, up from 15th in 2017. Although the study claimed 92 scientific publications were used to verify this increase in deaths, no list of publications used was cited .

A group of six scientists and doctors led by Professor Alice Stanton of the Royal Irish College of Surgeons and colleagues from Vrije University, Brussels, and the University of Washington, challenged the GBD authors to provide evidence to validate the GBD findings as no systematic public review process had been made available either before or after publication in The Lancet. Typically, studies similar to GBD use a public systematic review process of peer-reviewed public data, however the 2019 GBD study carried out the review process in-house, without disclosing the process used.

The GBD and The Lancet initially appeared to ignore the request for evidence and failed to respond to the challenge to provide evidence within the typical time frame, leading to further criticism and pressure from Stanton and colleagues. Stanton called the use of GBD findings for use in any regulatory or legislative policy decisions as “highly inappropriate” and voiced concerns that school lunch programs could be particularly affected by policy changes.

Concerns from the group were also raised regarding the effects on iron deficiencies and anemia worldwide if GBD recommendations to reduce red meat consumption were implemented. Stanton’s group in a letter to The Lancet stated they found “no relationship” between the meta-analysis of nutritional research and the GBD study findings. They also expressed concerns that the GBD findings contradicted the World Cancer Research Fund continuous update results that cite “the link between red meat consumption and cancer to be limited” and that “no conclusion could be reached regarding a causal relationship.”

After repeated requests for evidence from Stanton’s group, the GBD authors recently responded in a statement saying, “to aid in interpretability of the strength of evidence supporting our analysis, we are introducing a five-star rating system in GBD 2020.” It is expected that the 2020 GBD report will show a significant reduction in the negative health effects of red meat consumption.

Michael Cox is a former Progressive Publishing writer, now with R&M Dairies LLC of Ireland.

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