It can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that red and processed meat hasn’t been far from the headlines this week.
Publication of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) report linking red and processed meat with cancer prompted the inevitable cascade of media interest. It’s not the first time our industry has been in the spotlight in this way and is unlikey to be the last.
However, amid some of the alarmist headlines, it’s important to retain some perspective and look at what was, and wasn’t said. The IARC hasn’t said eating red and processed meat as part of a balanced diet causes cancer: no single food causes cancer. Nor is it saying it’s as dangerous as smoking.
The Government looked at the same evidence in 2010 and recommended people eat no more than 70g of red and processed meat a day. This week it has confirmed that this advice is not changing. IARC’s findings suggest that eating 50g of processed meat brings a small increase in risk. However, average consumption in the UK is just 17g per day so the average person would need to eat three times their current levels to increase their risk.
Red and processed meat plays an important role in a balanced diet, providing protein, iron, zinc and B vitamins. There’s no evidence that removing meat from your diet protects against cancer. The argument for the positive role red meat has to play in a balanced diet is compelling. But don’t just take our word for it. A number of articles, interviews and blogs have this week underlined the value of red meat in a healthy, balanced diet.
A blog by Zoë Harcombe, for example, highlighted that by singling out red and processed meat, a person’s entire lifestyle and diet is overlooked. This key point was also reiterated by the Meat Advisory Panel (MAP) dietician Dr Carrie Ruxton, during an interview on the BBC Radio 2 Jeremy Vine Programme. You can listen to Dr Ruxton from 1 hour, 15 minutes and 30 seconds into the programme putting the case for red meat’s dietary benefits. Echoing the importance of overall lifestyle, she pointed out that we are not high consumers of red meat in the UK and drew agreement from the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) representative also interviewed that, as long as consumption is kept within the guidelines, there’s no need to cut out red meat at all.
Some balance was also provided by an article in The Guardian on the 116 things considered to give you cancer. Interestingly, the article highlighted that red meat isn’t on that list. And as Dr Hilary Jones stressed in his report on Good Morning Britain, you can’t look at one food in isolation and say that it causes cancer. He also alluded to the equivalent risks of developing bowel cancer among vegetarians and meat eaters. Dr Jones also stressed the nutritional benefits of red meat in the diet providing a variety of nutrients, all of which are required for general health and wellbeing.
The crux of the matter again appears to be that the meat industry remains in the crosshairs for criticism as a result of such observational studies – an easy target to grab headlines, as has again proven to be the case. The reality, however, is that many more factors are overlooked and are missing from the equation. As Dr Ruxton made clear, most of us are eating an acceptable amount of red meat. We are not, however, eating the right amount of fruit and fibre. Nor are many of us taking the right amount of exercise. Surely these factors are worthy of greater consideration before meat is cast as the villain of the piece again.
With regards to red meat and health, AHDB Beef & Lamb and AHDB Pork have helped create significant resources to support the industry. You can access these at http://meatandhealth.redmeatinfo.com and http://meatmatters.redmeatinfo.com/