FRAMINGHAM, Mass. -- It was here in this thriving New England town that America’s love affair with beef started to lose its sizzle.
It was here a half-century ago that obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels were all identified as risk factors for heart disease.
Indeed, it was here that scientists coined the term “risk factor,” triggering the deluge of nutrition research that keeps beef from being “what’s for dinner” in many households.
But Big Beef is fighting back.
The beef industry has funneled millions into a public relations campaign to cast steaks and burgers as something akin to health food — something you can eat every day, even twice a day.
In its yearlong study of the issue, The Kansas City Star found that Big Beef is:
• Attempting to influence the next rewrite of the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines in 2015. Big Beef wants them to include new research the industry paid for that promotes a beef diet intended to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. It also has paid for advertising and promotions, for example, getting lean cuts certified by the American Heart Association as “heart-healthy” food.
• Spending even more money influencing the nation’s dietitians, treating them to junkets and dinners. The industry arranges continuing education programs for nutritionists to spread the gospel immediately after beef-sponsored research is published in scientific journals.
• Stifling criticism of food or its production methods through what are called “veggie libel” laws now in effect in 13 states. The laws were promoted by the American Feed Industry Association, whose members include large beef packers and animal pharmaceutical firms.
In an effort to maintain market share, the beef industry has gone on the nutritional offensive. Its own marketing research shows that concerns about nutrition, and fat in particular, remain a major disincentive to consumers from buying beef as voraciously as they did a generation ago.
The average American maxed out on beef in 1976, eating a record 67.9 pounds that year. Since then, beef consumption in the United States has fallen by about a third. Chicken surpassed beef as the nation’s most popular meat nearly a decade ago.
“Everybody is competing for the same calories. The only way you can sell your product is by giving it a health aura,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University and a regular critic of the food industry.
Despite a seemingly endless onslaught of medical research that implicates beef and other red meat in heart disease, cancer, diabetes and weight gain, the beef industry remains hopeful, citing marketing data that 94 percent of us eat beef at least once a month.
Industry-sponsored research, such as the diet study, is designed to “address important information gaps,” said Shalene McNeill, a registered dietitian and executive director of nutrition research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
Yet other nutrition experts remain skeptical of the continuing marketing push to burnish beef’s public image.
“There’s just so much evidence that beef is related to heart disease,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the health advocacy organization Center for Science in the Public Interest.