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Medical journal will 'clarify' its bogus investigation of US food committee

No, the committee did not suggest 'deleting meat'

Jun Seita / Flickr

Last week, the British Medical Journal published an error-filled "investigation" of US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's February report — a report that will be used to issue new federal dietary guidelines later this year. Following its publication, multiple news outlets — including Time, Newsweek, and Mother Jones reported these errors as fact. Now, the British Medical journal says it will publish a "clarification" on its investigation within the next 24 hours.

The journalist who wrote the story, Nina Teicholz, "will shortly be posting — as a rapid response on thebmj.com — a statement in response to her critics," Rebecca Coombes, head of investigations and features at The BMJ, told The Verge in an email. "We will also be issuing in the next 24 hours a clarification relating to two aspects of the piece."

"A clarification relating to two aspects of the piece."

Every five years, the US government publishes a new set of dietary guidelines. The guidelines affect school lunches, food labelling, and scientific research — which is to say that their impact is very large. But the BMJ published an investigation that reads like pro-fat propaganda last week — and that means it will probably be used by the meat lobby to discredit the committee's advice on lowering the consumption of red and processed meats. A Congressional hearing on the 2015 dietary guidelines is planned for October 7th.

Already, nutritional movements like the Paleo diet, which discourages the consumption of grains, have declared that fat is good, cholesterol risks are overblown, and that low-fat diets have led to higher obesity rates. The current science on these claims is not convincing, though it is certainly possible some future studies may show them to be true. Regardless — given how difficult it is to study diets (most people assigned to long-term diets cheat) — the only diet so far that has shown any real efficacy in repeated studies is the Mediterranean Diet, which consists mainly of plant-based foods, such as  fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, along with some fats like olive oil and animal proteins such as fish.

In a response to the BMJ's investigation, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee called the article "woefully misleading and in many cases, factually incorrect." As we reported on The Verge, Teicholz's article contains a number of inaccuracies. She suggests, for instance, that the committee "deleted meat" from the list of recommended foods. This is simply untrue; the report clearly states that "it is not necessary to eliminate food groups or conform to a single dietary pattern to achieve healthy dietary patterns" and that "lean meats can be a part of a healthy dietary pattern." Teicholz, who is the author of a book entitled The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, also suggests that the committee ignored a number of important studies in its analysis — even though many of these studies are, in fact, irrelevant to the committee's mandate.

Coombes didn’t say in the email what, precisely, BMJ would be clarifying. But she told The Verge that the journal "stands by this piece of reporting." Teicholz's investigation will not be taken down, she says.

The BMJ "stands by this piece of reporting."

"Any specific errors of fact that are identified to us will of course be corrected if necessary," Coombes wrote. The BMJ editor also informed us that the article had been reviewed by "three peer reviewers, all experts in nutrition, and read closely by three internal editors at the BMJ and fact checked on both sides of the Atlantic. It was then technically edited before publication."

What's troubling about this answer is the addition of the words "if necessary." We hope that the BMJ — a well-regarded medical journal — considers all "errors of fact" worth correcting.

When we received the article prior to publication, one of the things that troubled us most was that Teicholz’s book — which reveals a very strong point of view — was not included in the disclosures. That disclosure was added to the online version of the article after The Verge asked Teicholz about it. It still isn’t clear whether readers of the paper copy of the journal were also made aware of Teicholz’s prior commitments. So, we asked. Coombes ignored our inquiry entirely. Here is her response, in full:

The article was never at any stage formally published on thebmj.com without this declaration.

The press released version of the article made the following declaration of interests from Nina Teicholz:

"I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare I have received modest honorariums for presenting my research findings to a variety of groups related to the medical, restaurant, financial, meat, and dairy industries. I am also a board member of a non-profit organization, the Nutrition Coalition, dedicated to ensuring that nutrition policy is based on rigorous science." [Emphasis Ours]

The press release version did not at first refer to Nina Teicholz's book only because the article had not been finalized at the time that the press release was issued. However, within 24 hours of the release being issued, the final version — clearly stating that Nina Teicholz's is the author of The Big Fat Surprise — was available and accessible from the press release.

This did not answer The Verge’s original question, about whether Teicholz’s book disclosure appeared in print; the BMJ has not responded to our inquiry on this point.

The generally evasive way in which the BMJ has treated our good-faith questions has not increased our confidence in Teicholz’s "investigation." We look forward to the journal’s clarifications with interest.

Update 9:16AM ET: Rebecca Coombes got in touch with us following the publication of this article to explain that the print version of the BMJ's story did not disclose Teicholz's potential conflicts of interests. Here is her note in full:

The BMJ did not list Nina Teicholz's competing interests in the print version of the journal. This is in line with our routine policy to direct readers to the full, online version on thebmj.com. We have taken this position for reasons of space and readability. The contents page of The BMJ print journal clearly states: "Full versions with references and competing interests are on the thebmj.com."

The BMJ is an online-first journal and we treat thebmj.com as the canonical version of the journal. The print version is a weekly digest of best and most relevant content for our UK readers.