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NPA backing AHDB calls for retraction of controversial meat study

14th Mar 2023 / By Alistair Driver

The NPA is fully backing AHDB's request for The Lancet to retract its 2019 study, ‘The Global Burden of Disease’, which links red meat consumption to cancer, due to concerns over a lack of transparency.

Bacon bunAHDB has made the request in an open letter to the medical journal. It comes on the back of a lack of clarity from The Lancet on whether the 2019 update was scrutinised by peers and conducted in line with appropriate procedures to ensure its accuracy, despite multiple requests from AHDB and others for this information.  

Concerns were first raised by esteemed nutrition and health academics in late 2021, followed by another group, with links to the World Cancer Research Fund, in early 2022 who expressed their concerns over the reliability of the claims of a jump in deaths related to red meat consumption.

The authors of the 2019 study published a carefully considered response to AHDB’s letter on 4 March 2023, nine months after it was sent. Despite this, AHDB is still very much unclear on whether the data went under independent scrutiny and whether its new evidence review process was carried out in accordance with relevant intellectual protocols.

Readers of The Lancet need to be confident in such an eminent publication, which based on AHDB’s experience to date on this matter, are not certain this can be the case, AHDB said.

Of significant concern, and 'astonishment' to AHDB, is that the authors of The Global Burden of Disease Study 2019 published another study, independent of The Lancet, in late 2022 which found 'weak evidence of association between unprocessed red meat consumption and colorectal cancer, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes and ischemic heart disease'.

It added: "Moreover … no evidence of an association between unprocessed red meat and ischemic stroke or haemorrhagic stroke.” Despite this, The Global Burden of Disease continues to be used to support claims that red meat consumption is a cause of higher health risks."

The Global Burden of Disease is an extremely influential dataset, used by policy makers all over the world to shape dietary and health guidelines, it has been referenced in 1000 scientific papers and up to 50 policy documents globally, including The National Food Strategy.           

It is reviewed every two years, and like most good science, it’s methodologies and review criteria is constantly evolving to ensure continued improvement and accuracy. However, between 2017 and 2019, the authors developed and implemented new review analysis in, it appears, isolation of competent scientific practice and international protocols.

AHDB’S Chief Executive Tim Rycroft said “The Lancet is a highly regarded medical journal and The Global Burden of Disease dataset is incredibly influential in public health and nutrition policy, therefore it is imperative that this science follows due process and critical review to ensure the greatest accuracy and, not least, legitimacy.

“As an evidence-based organisation, we are particularly concerned about the lack of transparency around how this data has been analysed and the way in which the new evidence review criteria has been determined. Therefore, on behalf of our levy payers, we will continue to push for transparency on this, to ensure the health impacts of red meat consumption are accurately depicted in science, policy and indeed society.

“Red meat offers a valuable contribution to a healthy balanced diet, and the authors of The Global Burden of Disease acknowledge that evidence which shows a protective relationship between red meat consumption and stroke has been overlooked. As has its protective relationship with iron deficiency anaemia, sarcopenia and child and maternal malnutrition.”

NPA chief policy adviser Rebecca Veale said: "We wholeheartedly support AHDB's actions on this. The Lancet's response to previous requests for clarity have not been good enough and we need to ensure that any claims on this hugely important topic are founded on sound science."