WASHINGTON – Another health study has linked red-meat consumption to an increased risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease and cancer. The American Meat Institute, however, refuted the study results.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health observed 121,342 people (37,698 men and 83,644 women) for up to 28 years and found that the deaths of 23,926 people in the study were linked to regular consumption of red meat, particularly processed meat. The study was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

"In conclusion, we found that greater consumption of unprocessed and processed red meats is associated with higher mortality risk," the study stated. "Compared with red meat, other dietary components, such as fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains, were associated with lower risk. These results indicate that replacement of red meat with alternative healthy dietary components may lower the mortality risk."

AMI charged the researchers relied on "notoriously unreliable self-reporting" about participants' diets and "obtuse methods to apply statistical analysis to the data". The association said based on information in the study, estimates of red and processed meat intake were only 27 percent to 35 percent accurate versus actual measurements. Also, researchers inserted estimated data where an actual survey measurement was missing and also stopped updating the dietary information once participants reported a diagnosis of a chronic illness because they assumed the participant could have changed their diet after the diagnosis. All of these factors could have significantly impacted the results.

“Too often, epidemiological findings are reported as ‘case closed’ findings, as if a researcher has discovered the definitive cause of a disease or illness" said Betsy Booren, AMI Foundation director of Scientific Affairs. "But epidemiological studies look at a multitude of diet and lifestyle factors in specific volunteer human populations and use sophisticated statistical methods to try and tease out relationships or associations between these factors and certain forms of disease.

"This method of comparing relationships has many limitations which are widely recognized by researchers in this field. More often than not, epidemiological studies, over time, provide more contradictions than conclusions,” Booren said.

Shalene McNeill, PhD, RD, Executive Director, Human Nutrition Research, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, argued that scientific evidence supports lean beef as part of a healthy, balanced diet. In addition to being physically active, choosing a balanced diet that includes a variety of foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and lean beef is important to maintaining good health. McNeill added that the Harvard study is an observational study that cannot be used to determine cause and effect.

"The scientific evidence to support the role of lean beef in a healthy, balanced diet is strong and there is nothing in this study that changes that fact," McNeill said. "Research clearly shows that choosing lean beef as part of a healthful diet is associated with improved overall nutrient intake, overall diet quality and positive health outcomes. Overall, lifestyle patterns including a healthy diet and physical activity, not consumption of any individual food, have been shown to affect mortality."