Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Red meat and mortality risk study causes media storm

After confidently reporting in last week’s blog that the red meat industry is beginning to enjoy more balanced coverage in the media, we were yesterday faced with a barrage of sensational headlines about a new study claiming a definite link between red meat consumption and an increased mortality rate. Red meat is blamed for one in 10 early deaths was the headline on the Telegraph’s front page, while the Sun settled for Red meat 'kills'. A fine example of Sod’s Law in action!

The study, carried out in the US, where meat consumption is significantly higher – 122.79kg compared with 85.51kg per capita in the UK (FAO, 2007) - looked at associations between high intakes of red meat and the risk of mortality and found a positive association between the two. However, the fact that the study was observational rather than controlled (ie. the researchers observed the effects of red meat consumption on a sample of the population rather than controlling the behaviour of the group) means that using the results to determine cause and effect is rather a questionable scientific method. The increased risk therefore cannot be clearly attributed to red meat.

Added to that, the authors of the study themselves state that those with a higher red meat intake were less likely to be physically active and were more likely to be current smokers, to drink alcohol, to have a higher total energy intake and a higher body mass index. All of these are widely acknowledged to be higher risk factors when looking at an increased mortality rate.

What is more concerning than the study itself is the continued willingness of the media to publish over-simplistic, misleading stories without any real understanding of the statistics involved, and with a sensational headline not borne out by the content of the story. This story has definitely led to the propagation of some dubious statistics which at best are impenetrable by the general public, and at worst should be relegated to the league of ‘zombie statistics’, as defined in a previous blog.

Only days after the industry had been riled by Countryfile’s animal welfare report, which compared the Red Tractor unfavourably to other labelling schemes, and the Panorama investigation into agricultural subsidies and non-active farmers, this is a further blow that our food producers just don’t need.

The reality is that lean red meat is extremely nutritious and can be consumed in moderation as part of a healthy, balanced diet, advice which is reinforced by the Government’s official Eatwell plate.

For more information visit the meat and health website.