Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp is demanding that Harvard University conduct an investigation into “unethical” actions by two of the university’s nutrition researchers.

In a Jan. 22 letter to Harvard President Lawrence Bacow, Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp cites a recent Journal of the American Medical Association article detailing efforts by two Harvard researchers and the True Health Initiative to prevent publication of systematic reviews on meat consumption’s effects on health in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Last fall, researchers with the NutriRECs Consortium recommended in the Annals that adults do not need to reduce their consumption of processed meat and unprocessed red meat, despite "low-certainty" evidence. 

The NutriRECs panel "believed that for the majority of individuals, the desirable effects (a potential lowered risk for cancer and cardiometabolic outcomes) associated with reducing meat consumption probably do not outweigh the undesirable effects (impact on quality of life, burden of modifying cultural and personal meal preparation and eating habits)," according to the Annals paper containing its "dietary guidelines recommendations."

Even before publication, the recommendations were causing a stir.

The Annals editor received a deluge of emails to the point where she had to shut down her inbox. “We’ve published a lot on firearm injury prevention,” Annals Editor-in-Chief Christine Laine told JAMA. “The response from the NRA (National Rifle Association) was less vitriolic than the response from the True Health Initiative.”

THI is a group founded by David Katz, a board-certified specialist in Preventive Medicine/Public Health and a past president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. Harvard nutrition researchers Walter Willett and Frank Hu are on THI’s council of directors. On its website, THI calls itself "a global coalition of world renown experts, fighting fake facts and combating false doubts to create a world free of preventable diseases, using the time-honored, evidence-based, fundamentals of lifestyle and medicine."

In his letter, Sharp says the JAMA article “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 Annals editor.

Sharp linked in his letter to “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.”

That professor is Patrick Stover, Vice Chancellor and Dean for Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M AgriLife, who was paired with "big beef" in Willett's illustration of the "disinformation triangle." The other two points were "sensationalist media" and "'evidence-based' academics" who are part of NutriRECS.

The JAMA article said “Katz and THI and many of its council members have numerous industry ties themselves. The difference is that their ties are primarily with companies and organizations that stand to profit if people eat less red meat and a more plant-based diet. Unlike the beef industry, these entities are surrounded by an aura of health and wellness, although that isn’t necessarily evidence-based.”

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Said Sharp: “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.”

Willett told Agri-Pulse in an email Wednesday that his and other researchers’ concern about the original Annals of Internal Medicine paper was “the fact that major bodies of evidence were omitted, relevant studies excluded because the authors didn’t like the results, and irrelevant information was included.” He said “a better overall review of the evidence is in a recent review by Dr. Hu.”  

Willett added that “conflict of interest” issues involving a Texas A&M researcher were reported in both the New York Times and Washington Post, which noted that nutrition and food science Prof. Bryan Johnston initially did not disclose funding from Texas A&M AgriLife Research and the International Life Science Institute (North America). He has since done so.

As for allegations about breaking the embargo for the Annals paper and using bots, those are “simply false, and I don’t know where this came from,” Willett said.

Harvard confirmed it had received Sharp's letter, but offered no other response. 

This article was updated with Willett's comments.

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