There’s no question that the consumption of red meat — from its healthfulness in humans to its impact on the environment to the care of the livestock themselves — is one of the hottest topics discussed in mainstream media and on social media platforms. And there are countless numbers of individuals and groups weighing in on all sides of this debate — some of whom are more reputable than others.
One organization in the discussion is the True Health Initiative, claiming to fight “fake facts” and combat “false doubts” to create a world free of preventable diseases. THI’s actions have raised red flags recently and have drawn the ire of Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp, who sent a letter to Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow over the ethics of how two Harvard professors were conducting themselves.
Last fall, the Annals of Internal Medicine was set to publish “several studies showing that the evidence linking red meat consumption with cardiovascular disease and cancer is too weak to recommend that adults eat less of it.” Sharp claims in the letter to Harvard that THI and Harvard faculty Dr. Walter Willett and Dr. Frank Hu spearheaded a campaign against the Editor in Chief of the Annals of Internal Medicine, flooding her email inbox with more than 2,000 caustic messages (most apparently from bots) pressuring her to retract the scientific studies from planned publication.
On THI’s website, there are multiple headlines that are critical of any evidence supporting the consumption of red meat, calling that kind of research controversial, questionable, bizarre, or industry funded. Many of these posts are the kinds of straw-man arguments that also get thrown around a lot on Facebook.
The arguments against THI are detailed in a News & Analysis piece published by the Journal of the American Medical Association. It is rare for two major academic institutions to come into conflict like this, especially over an agricultural issue. The full letter from Texas A&M’s chancellor to Harvard’s president is posted below:
Dear Dr. Bacow,
I write to inform you of my dismay over recent actions by Harvard faculty Dr. Walter Willett and Dr. Frank Hu and their associates, Dr. David Katz and the True Health Initiative (THI). Their actions, as described in a recent JAMA article, are unethical, distort the results of important scientific research, and, in our opinion, are false and harmful to Texas A&M University and its faculty. These are serious matters that undermine the values espoused by your institution and must be corrected immediately.
I trust you were as surprised as I was after reading the JAMA article and ask that you take a look at the outrageous actions by THI. JAMA found that THI and several of its council members, including Harvard faculty Dr. Willett and Dr. Hu, mischaracterized scientific research and falsely accused Texas A&M scientists of selling out to industry interests. According to JAMA, THI not only broke journal embargo policy but apparently used automated bots to flood the email inbox of the Editor in Chief of the Annals of Internal Medicine.
Several of your faculty are involved as council members or advisers of THI and collaborated with THI in their effort to discredit scientific evidence that runs contrary to their ideology. I can assure you that Texas A&M’s research is driven by science. Period.
In addition to my concern about JAMA findings, I am attaching an illustration Dr. Willett presented at a cardiology conference to attack a distinguished Texas A&M professor and the university itself as being influenced by industry. This unsubstantiated claim has been independently rejected and shown to be false in the JAMA article.
At this time, we have no hard basis to show that these actions against Texas A&M and its faculty are endorsed or condoned by your institution, and we hope we can work together to resolve this problem. Such resolution should include a serious assessment by Harvard of its affiliation with THI and a comprehensive ethical review into any Harvard faculty involved with THI. Several scientists have severed ties with THI because of the issues discussed in this letter. Texas A&M applauds the stand taken by these scientists and encourages Harvard to show the same courage.
Texas A&M asks that Harvard join us for a purely scientific approach to nutrition for the sake of public health and public trust and reject the politics and unethical actions of THI that have sought to discredit science and interfere in the scientific process.