How did people come to decide that a complete meal involves animal protein and a glass of milk? Science has been used to support many dietary recommendations, but some of this research has been influenced by producers and special interest groups. More specifically, the meat and dairy industry have become increasingly involved in influencing the science that informs what people should eat in order to better market their products.
Having research funded by industry creates a major conflict of interest for scientists and their work. Described as the “industry funding effect,” there is a correlation between the desired results of the industry and the reported results of a study. Within the food and beverage industry, the results of such studies are four to eight times more likely to support the interests of industry. Funding can impact the line of inquiry that a study follows in order to yield results about “products, processes, or activities that can be commercialized.” After the publication of these findings, the meat and dairy industry can use positive media attention to grow consumer demand. The industry is aware that these positively skewed articles generate excitement and renewed interest in their products.
Beef industry partners have recognized that the implications are clear: “conduct research that helps identify positive impacts derived from beef consumption” and present it to “health professionals, nutritionists, and, especially, consumers.” Also, according to the regulations of the US Food and Drug Administration, any health claims that are advertised on product packaging must be supported by scientific research. Therefore, meat and dairy producers need to fund studies in order to make any sort of health claims about their products. This demand-enhancing research is crucial to shaping the consumption patterns of meat and dairy.
There are many studies that make scientific claims about the nutritional benefits of dairy. One flawed assertion that stemmed from dubious research was that chocolate milk is a good recovery beverage for athletes. This idea became the basis of the “Built with Chocolate Milk” campaign launched in 2013 that featured athletes advertising their use of chocolate milk to improve their athletic performance. One of the most recent studies from which the chocolate milk craze developed was titled Chocolate milk versus carbohydrate supplements in adolescent athletes: a field based study. This article concluded that chocolate milk was better at achieving the positive strength outcomes and thus it should be considered an exercise recovery supplement. The study also mentioned explicitly that it was funded by Dairy MAX incorporated. Dairy MAX is a council that represents the interests of over 900 dairy farms in the midwest United States. The council’s primary concern is increasing the demand for dairy which has narrowed the focus of their financial investments. They have invested in schools by providing grants and scholarships to students that advance their milk consumption agenda. Dairy MAX has funded studies and also promotes the studies funded by other pro-dairy organizations listed on their website like the National Dairy Council’s yogurt fact sheet and the importance of dairy in the diets of people with Type 2 Diabetes.
Not only is the funding for the chocolate milk study a source of concern, but the experiment itself was designed in a way to produce the desired results. The study concluded that drinks with both carbohydrates and protein are better than recovery drinks with just carbohydrates or just protein. The main issue is that they compared chocolate milk, which contains both carbohydrates and protein, to a sports drink that had only carbohydrates. The conclusion was that people should consume protein and carbohydrates after working out, however, the study was skewed to appear as an endorsement of chocolate milk as the best recovery drink, without considering how other beverages, including water, stack up.
Other studies have also been conducted that paint an inaccurate picture of chocolate milk. A study funded by the National Dairy Council and the National Milk Processor Promotion Board found that chocolate milk improved aerobic trailing and increased lean muscle mass. The industry funding of such studies calls into question the integrity of the scholarly work produced. The information produced from these studies was even peddled by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in a post that acknowledged that the dairy industry uses “innovative research” to access “new markets for their products.” The post also promoted the research about chocolate milk as a recovery drink when referencing important industry research. While many pro-dairy publications can be called into question, they still exist in prominent and respected journals highlighting the importance of approaching scientific research with a critical eye.
Not only has the meat and dairy industry complicated nutrition science, but they have also fought to defend their polluting industries. The meat industry in particular has used many tactics, such as supporting political campaigns, lobbying, and funding research. Since the publication of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s report Livestock’s Long Shadow, the meat industry has attempted to discredit and downplay the influence of animal agriculture on climate change. One scientist from the University of California Davis, Dr. Frank Mitloehner, was critical of the report in his own study “Clearing the Air: Livestock’s Contributions to Climate Change.” This research, though, was conducted with the help of a $26,000 grant from the Beef Checkoff Program. Since then Dr. Mitolehner has continued to produce industry funded research for agricultural groups. Checkoff programs, created by the federal government, are mandatory tax on the production of certain products. These programs fund research and marketing that promotes the consumption of the product. So, the Beef Checkoff Program uses funds to promote the consumption of beef. For beef, the tax is typically one dollar per head of cattle. That money is then used to pay for studies that will likely conclude with a positive review of beef consumption. The Beef Checkoff Program is responsible for campaigns like “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner” which aimed to increase beef consumption in the US. The program is overseen by the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board (Beef Board) which is made up of 101 nominated members that typically are beef producers or otherwise involved in beef production. In short, beef producers are collectively funding research to help their businesses under the guise of a credible, government-funded program.
All research funded through this program is done with the support of industry stakeholders. In addition to all of the issues stemming from conflicts of interest in funding, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future responded to Dr. Mitoehner’s claims and asserted that animal agriculture is a major contributor to climate change. They cite incomplete calculations of greenhouse gas emissions that leave out critical aspects of livestock production that would increase totals and other science related errors. Individual studies can lead to disagreements in the scientific community but these issues become amplified when agricultural industries place their wallets on the scale.
While these examples seem to be clear violations of scientific practices and trust, it is often difficult to determine which studies to believe. A poll conducted by Pew Research Center has shown that only about two-in-ten Americans believe scientists “are transparent about potential conflicts of interest with industry all or most of the time.” People have become skeptical of the information they are given. As explained by nutrition researcher Martijn Katan, in the long term, industry funded research “...undermines the credibility of science. In the short term, it means that some people will eat more butter or cheese than is good for them.” Research holds the potential to impact public debate and policy making so it is critical to make sure the information entering the public sphere is both accurate and unencumbered by industry influence. There are a few ways to address the influence of the private sector on academic research. To prioritize unbiased academic studies, more funding for independent research could be provided so that researchers do not need to seek additional funds from industry. There are some fields of study that can only access very limited funding from the government which means that they need to turn to industry to support their endeavors. Widening the scope of funding and increasing the amount available would help limit the attraction of industry money. Additionally, there needs to be stricter guidelines around the reliance of research institutions on commercial entities to prevent these partnerships with industry. It is critical to examine the ways in which research is funded in order to protect the integrity of research.
Jill O’Keeffe is a college intern with FFAC studying sociology, psychology, and philosophy at the University of San Diego