Washington Insider -- Wednesday

Red Meat and Health

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

McConnell Notes GOP Need For Trade Deal With China

Commenting during an interview with CNBC Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said “rural America really needs” a China trade deal soon.

McConnell noted the trade war with China has been tough on American farmers. “As you know, my party is very deeply based in rural America and small-town America,” McConnell said. “So, I hope the president can get a good outcome here.” McConnell said he appreciates what Trump is trying to do, but said things need to get wrapped up soon.

“I admire what he is trying to do, but I hope we can get a conclusion to this soon because rural America really needs it.” McConnell said.


Groups Want Meeting With Commerce’s Ross Re: Argentina Biodiesel Duties

The National Biodiesel Board and the American Soybean Association asked Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for a meeting before the agency finalizes a review that would end most countervailing duties on biodiesel from Argentina.

“It remains unclear why Commerce is rushing to issue final results when recent developments in Argentina suggest a likely change in leadership and tax policy,” the groups said in a letter. The groups called on Ross to “protect” U.S. biodiesel from the trade practices that resulted in the initial duties, issued in 2018, saying “Argentina’s tax policies are likely to continue to change.”

They argued that U.S. soybean growers “continue to find international markets unbalanced as a result of uncertainty over trade agreements and retaliatory trade practices,” the letter added.

While U.S. farmers grapple with “reduced demand and lower prices as a result of trade disruptions to address unfair practices by China unrelated to soybean markets, it would be inconsistent and further damaging to relax measures addressing unfair practices by Argentina.”

Washington Insider: Red Meat and Health

The New York Times and a number of other media publications are highlighting a new report this week on human nutrition that calls the scientific evidence “too weak to justify telling individuals to eat less beef and pork.” Critics are up in arms.

For years, public health officials have urged reduced consumption of red meat and processed meats on the grounds that they are linked to heart disease, cancer and other ills. But on Monday an international collaboration of researchers produced a series of analyses concluding that the advice is not backed by good scientific evidence.

“If there are health benefits from eating less beef and pork, they are small,” the researchers concluded. Indeed, the advantages are so faint that they can be discerned only when looking at very large populations, the studies said.

“The certainty of evidence for these risk reductions was low to very low,” Bradley Johnston, an epidemiologist at Dalhousie University in Canada and leader of the group publishing the new research in the Annals of Internal Medicine told the press.

These studies are among the largest such evaluations ever attempted and may influence future dietary recommendations. However, the Times — and several other publications — emphasized that the findings raise uncomfortable questions about current and future dietary advice and nutritional research and what sort of standards these efforts should be held to.

The Times said that the reports have already “been met with fierce criticism by public health researchers,” and pointed out that the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and other groups have savaged the findings and the journal that published them.

The NYT says these “conclusions represent another in a series of jarring dietary reversals involving salt, fats, carbohydrates and more.”

The Times also says that “a renewed appetite for red meat also runs counter to two other important trends: a growing awareness of the environmental degradation caused by livestock production and longstanding concern about the welfare of animals employed in industrial farming.”

NYT notes that beef is not “just another foodstuff,” but is a symbol set firmly in the center of America’s dinner plate. Even so, as concerns about health effects have risen, consumption of beef has fallen steadily since the mid-1970s, especially among highly educated consumers.

However, the average American still eats about 4 1/2 servings of red meat a week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

In three reviews, the group looked at large numbers of studies asking whether eating red meat or processed meats affected the risk of cardiovascular disease or cancer. In each study reviewed, the scientists concluded that the links between eating red meat and disease and death were small and the quality of the evidence was low to very low.

That is not to say that those links don’t exist, but the health effects of red meat consumption are detectable only in the largest groups, the team concluded, and “an individual cannot conclude that he or she will be better off not eating red meat.”

The study asserted that “if Americans were highly motivated by even modest health hazards, then it might be worth continuing to advise them to eat less red meat” — but it found that the “evidence even for this is weak,” and that “omnivores are attached to meat and are unwilling to change ...even when faced with potentially undesirable health effects.”

Taken together, the analyses raise questions about the longstanding dietary guidelines urging people to eat less red meat, the Times said.

The new studies were met with indignation by nutrition researchers who have long said that red meat and processed meats contribute to the risk of heart disease and cancer.

So, the debate is rapidly turning to the value of nutritional research and health advice and whether it’s possible to ascertain the effects of just one component of the diet, the Times said. It called this “a time to “reconsider how nutritional research is done in the country.” It also questioned how effectively research results “really help to inform an individual’s decisions.”

Despite flaws in the evidence, health officials still must give advice and offer guidelines, said Dr. Meir Stampfer, also of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He believes that the data favor of eating less meat and that, although imperfect, they indicate there are likely to be health benefits. One way to give advice would be to say “reduce your red meat intake,” Stampfer said, although he mused about how that would be interpreted, and how it could be better communicated.

Perhaps there is no way to make policies that can be conveyed to the public and simultaneously communicate the breadth of scientific evidence concerning diet. Or maybe policymakers should try something more straightforward: “When you don’t have the highest-quality evidence, the correct conclusion is ‘maybe,’” one expert told the Times.

So, we will see. There is little dispute that there are severe health problems linked to diets, as well as social concerns about climate change and animal welfare, among others. But what should be done to encourage better health and nutrition and how the government should be involved is far from clear and likely to be increasingly debated, fights producers should watch closely as they emerge, Washington Insider believes.

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