Two faculty members at the Harvard School of Public Health have become embroiled in a public debate over spam emails and industry-funded research after criticizing the framing of an article on red meat in a respected research journal.
The article — which was published in Annals of Internal Medicine in Sept. 2019 — summarized a study on red meat consumption conducted by NutriRECS, an international coalition of scientists led by Bradley C. Johnston, a professor at Texas A&M University.
After circulating a press release with the prospective title of the article — “New guidelines: No need to reduce red or processed meat consumption” — Christine Laine, the editor-in-chief of Annals of Internal Medicine, told the Journal of the American Medical Association that she received roughly 2,000 “vitriolic” emails, some of which she said appeared to be generated by a bot, in the span of half an hour.
Laine could not be reached by The Crimson for comment. Annals of Internal Medicine declined to comment.
Laine told JAMA the emails came from the True Health Initiative, a nonprofit devoted to “fighting fake facts and combating false doubts,” per its website.
THI did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A statement posted to its LinkedIn states that it “has never made use of ‘bots’ to disseminate any message, and has no recourse to any such service or device.”
On Wednesday, Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp sent a letter to University President Lawrence S. Bacow expressing “dismay” over THI’s alleged actions. He specifically criticized two School of Public Health faculty members who serve on its council of directors, Frank B. Hu and Walter C. Willett.
Hu wrote in an emailed statement that he is one of about 500 members of THI, which he called “a pretty informal organization with no membership fee and no compensation.” The organization’s website lists several hundred people as members of its council of directors. Willet said Harvard is unconnected to THI.
Hu later said in an interview that he had heard nothing about the spam emails prior to the article in JAMA and found it a “very shocking allegation.”
Willet also said in an interview that he did not send any bot-generated emails to Laine.
“I wouldn’t know what to do with a bot if I had one,” Willet said.
Hu and Willett each said that they sent one email to Laine to share concerns regarding the article prior to its publication. They each also signed onto a joint letter from 12 THI members publicly posted to the group’s website.
Willett said he was most concerned with the title of the article about red meat, calling the phrase “new guidelines” “inflammatory.”
“We requested that the journal modify that headline because it was guaranteed to attract a lot of attention and mislead people,” Willet said. “The usual ‘guidelines’ are developed by a group of people who are experienced in that field, by some sort of organization, the federal government or American Cancer Society or the American Heart Association, and encompass all the relevant evidence.”
In his letter to Bacow, Sharp wrote that the actions of THI, Hu, and Willett “are unethical, distort the results of important scientific research, and, in our opinion, are false and harmful to Texas A&M University.” He called on Harvard to resolve the issue.
“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,” Sharp wrote.
University spokesperson Jason A. Newton confirmed the University received the letter. Laylan Copelin — the Vice Chancellor for Marketing and Communications for Texas A&M — said that though Sharp and Bacow have been travelling and “missed one another,” their “staff members are talking.”
The letter from Sharp also criticized Willet for “attack[ing] a distinguished Texas A&M professor and the university itself as being influenced by industry,” calling the claim “unsubstantiated.”
Willet said he believes there is “clearly a conflict of interest” at Texas A&M. After the Annals of Internal Medicine published the article about red meat, multiple outlets reported that Johnston, the lead author, had failed to report potential conflicts of interest.
Annals of Internal Medicine issued a correction in December 2019 stating that Johnston failed to disclose he and his coalition had received funding from Texas A&M’s Agriculture and Life Sciences program, which includes educational programming for beef cattle producers and promotes Texas beef to consumers, per the Washington Post. At times, AgriLife studies have been funded by The Texas Beef Checkoff program, an industry marketing arm funded by cattle ranchers.
Copelin noted that AgriLife gets just 5.4 percent of its research money from beef, pork, and lamb sources, all of which is reported on its website.
In his letter to Bacow, Sharp noted that in an illustrated model Willet presented at an academic conference, he listed Texas A&M and its Vice Chancellor and Dean for Agriculture and Life Sciences, Patrick J. Stover — another author on the red meat study — as “representatives” for big beef.
Willett clarified that he is not trying to “accuse anybody of doing anything nefarious or wrong.”
“Would there be any conflict of interest if a report on the health effects of potatoes was co-authored and partly led by the dean of agriculture at the University of Idaho? There is an inherent conflict of interest,” he said.
—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.