First, on January 5, we reviewed a news release from the University of Maryland that was headlined, “Concussion-related measures improved in high school football players who drank new chocolate milk, UMD study shows.”
When a news release states that a “study shows” something which is not backed up by any evidence in the news release, it’s logical that journalists should ask for the data. HealthNewsReview.org asked for a copy of the study but the university declined to provide it. The researcher suddenly became unavailable. University news office staff declined to answer questions about publicizing health claims based on a study that was “too preliminary” to talk about.
Other journalists followed the scent, including Baltimore Business Journal reporter Sarah Gantz. A comment on my original blog post indicated some people close to the university were also asking questions.
Then today, Sarah alerted me that she was reporting the university has launched its own review. I got back in touch with University of Maryland Chief Communications Officer Crystal Brown, asking for comment on the internal review… and whether she was now ready to answer the long list of questions I raised with her last week.
Her full response:
Our Vice President of Research released this statement on the matter. It can be attributed to Pat O’Shea.
“We have initiated an institutional review of this matter. We reaffirm our institutional commitment to the highest standards of research, peer-reviewed science, and avoidance of any conflict of interest, perceived or real.”
As we have noted, the University of Maryland’s handling of the study done on behalf of Fifth Quarter Fresh, and university news releases that propelled the company’s marketing of its brand of chocolate milk, raise many questions about credible scientific conduct, human experimentation standards, conflicts of interest involved in university-industry collaborations and other ethical and scientific matters. It’s not just ivory tower stuff. In the chocolate milk release, a local school official vowed to provide the product to all student athletes, based on a study that no one could see.
While it is heartening to see the University of Maryland launch its own review now, the issues should have been faced long ago. A series of articles on the chocolate milk study appeared in December and all the ones we saw were based only on the news release. Last summer, another news release claiming this brand of chocolate milk is superior to other sports recovery drinks, referring to another unreleased study by the same researcher, was parroted by multiple outlets, including the Baltimore Sun, apparently without anyone independently examining the underlying study or questioning claims that didn’t even seem to be supported by the fragments of information in the news releases. For instance, neither study appeared to include any other brands of milk, chocolate or regular, so there’s no evidence to back up claims the Fifth Quarter Fresh brand is any different from generic milk.
We look forward to the results of the University of Maryland review.
Meanwhile, we note that this Potemkin village could have been unmasked long ago with a few basic questions. So we implore journalists: if you see something, ask something.
Former CNN Medical Correspondent Andrew Holtz is an independent journalist based in Portland, Oregon. He’s been a long-time blog contributor and reviewer for HealthNewsReview.org.