Washington Insider -- Monday

Reasons Nutrition Studies Don't Always Add Up

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

White House Mulling RIN Trading Restrictions

The White House is said to be mulling putting restrictions on trading of biofuel credits – known as renewable identification numbers (RINs) – as part of a package of biofuel reforms that would include year-round sales of E15.

The focus is on preventing companies from amassing credits and driving up prices, according to a report from Reuters. The report indicated that the number of RINs a dealer can hold could be capped at 120% of their annual compliance obligations.

Further, the plan could also see restrictions put on certain parties from holding RINs more than 30 days.

The RIN trading restrictions would be part of a plan that reports indicate the administration wants to unveil ahead of the November elections in a bid to boost chances for Midwest Republican lawmakers.

GIPSA Rules Are Expected To Resurface In 2019

USDA is planning to revive a rulemaking process to balance the power between meatpacking companies and contract growers, more widely known as the GIPSA rules after the agency issuing the rules – the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA).

The department will revisit GIPSA regulations in its spring 2019 regulatory agenda, which sets out a list of priorities for the year. The 2019 plan was revealed at a Wednesday hearing in a case challenging the USDA decision to scrap the two rules, a case brought by advocacy group the Organization for Competitive Markets and legal nonprofit Democracy Forward.

A Department of Justice attorney arguing on behalf of USDA told a panel of judges that he was authorized to say that the department intends to place a proposed rule on its upcoming regulatory agenda — a sign, he said, that USDA has not abandoned a congressional farm bill mandate to write regulations to aid farmers who do business with meatpacking companies.

Washington Insider: Reasons Nutrition Studies Don’t Always Add Up

One of the especially difficult concerns about food and nutrition policies is the huge difference about what food consumers believe, and what most scientists believe about genetically modified foods, among other things. Scientists think they GMOs are safe, by a large margin—while consumers, especially foodies, worry that they may not be.

The New York Times this weekend carried an Op-Ed piece by Anahad O’Connor, a staff reporter covering health, science, nutrition and other topics for Science Times and the Well blog.

The piece opened with a note about a well-known Cornell food scientist. It said that “not long ago, Brian Wansink was one of the most respected food researchers in America.” He founded the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, where he won attention for studies that showed that small behavioral changes could influence eating patterns. He also wrote best-selling books and published hundreds of studies.

In addition, for over a year, he served in a top nutrition policy role at USDA where he helped shape the government’s influential Dietary Guidelines. His research even led the government to spend almost $20 million redesigning school cafeterias, an initiative known as the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement.

However, a recent controversy likely has ended Wansink’s career at Cornell, O’Connor says. The University said that a yearlong investigation had found “academic misconduct in his research and scholarship, including misreporting of research data,” and that he had tendered his resignation.

The announcement came one day after the prestigious medical journal JAMA retracted six of Wansink’s studies because of questions about their “scientific validity.” Seven of his other papers had previously been retracted for similar reasons, O’Connor said.

For more than a year, Wansink had been dogged by accusations that many of his studies were riddled with errors, data inconsistencies and evidence of fraud. While he admitted “mistakes,” he defended his work and said that none of his mistakes “changed the substantive conclusions” of any of his papers.

The Times said that while very few scientists are accused of misconduct or misreporting data, critics have long contended that nutrition research is plagued by credibility problems.

O’Connor said that Wansink’s lab “was known for data dredging, or p-hacking, the process of running exhaustive analyses on data sets to tease out subtle signals that might otherwise be unremarkable.” Critics say it is tantamount to casting a wide net and then creating a hypothesis to support whatever cherry-picked findings seem interesting — the opposite of the scientific method.

“P-hacking is a really serious problem,” said Ivan Oransky, a co-founder of Retraction Watch, who teaches medical journalism at New York University. Data dredging is fairly common in health research, and especially in studies involving food, the Times said and called it is one reason contradictory nutrition headlines seem to be the norm: one week coffee, cheese and red wine are found to be protective against heart disease and cancer and the next week a new crop of studies pronounce that they cause it.

In 2012, John Ioannidis, the chairman of disease prevention at Stanford, published a study titled “Is Everything We Eat Associated With Cancer?” He and a co-author randomly selected 50 recipes from a cookbook and discovered that 80% of the ingredients had been linked to either an increased or a decreased risk of cancer in numerous studies. In many cases a single ingredient was found to be the subject of questionable cancer claims in more than 10 studies, a vast majority of which “were based on weak statistical evidence,” the paper concluded.

Nutrition epidemiology is notorious for this, he said. Scientists routinely scour data sets on large populations looking for links between specific foods or diets and health outcomes like chronic disease and life span. These studies can generate important findings and hypotheses.

In one recent example, an observational study of thousands of people published in The Lancet last year made headlines with its findings that high-carb diets were linked to increased mortality rates and that eating saturated fat and meat was protective.

Then in August, a separate team of researchers published an observational study of thousands of people in a related journal, The Lancet Public Health, with contrasting findings: low-carb diets that were high in meat increased mortality rates.

“You can analyze observational studies in very different ways and, depending on what your belief is — and there are very strong nutrition beliefs out there — you can get some very dramatic patterns,” Ioannidis said.

“I would say that we’re all drinking from the same well, and we’re all contributing to poisoning the water,” said Ted Kyle, an obesity expert who runs a health site called ConscienHealth. “At every step along the way there are folks who are culpable. I would suspect that we’re all complicit.”

Oransky estimated that every year roughly 1,400 scientific papers are retracted out of the two million to three million that are published. What made this case stand out, he said, is that a media darling was at the center of it.

So, we will see. To the extent the “weak evidence” problem is institutional, it will be important for universities and research institutes to build and enforce better reality checks. And to the extent weak research is able to taint public policy, it will be important to establish safeguards that can be seen and tested, rather than being caught up in university politics. This is an important debate, one that producers should watch closely as it proceeds, Washington Insider believes.

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