4. ‘No news is good news’
This was actually a question posed by DAFC UK Market Director, John Howard, at a seminar at the recent Meatup Exhibition, as he reviewed the often tense relationship between the meat industry and the media in recent years.
Here’s what John had to say at the Meatup seminar in June.
“Looking at some of the headlines that we in the meat industry have grown used to – we’d be tempted to answer ‘yes’ to a question ‘is no news good news’?
|Meat in the media
“We in the UK are not major carnivores by international standards, but overall consumption of meat has remained fairly stable in the last two decades - although traditional red meat continues to lose ground to poultry and other processed meats and we continue to see shorter-term switches between species that are predominantly price- driven.
“As regards the image of meat, poultry and fish are perceived as ‘healthier’ than the other main red meats but tracking studies show that generally the position has remained fairly stable in recent years although none of us are particularly happy about the current levels of consumer approval.
“Over the years, a number of high profile ‘crises’, such as BSE, which peaked in 1996, the widely publicised report by the World Cancer Research Fund released in 2007 and more recently the ‘Horsegate’ affair, have threatened to undermine the credentials of the meat industry and have caused a number of blips in some of the negative measures, tracking public perceptions.
“They have undoubtedly contributed to an environment where the positive nutritional benefits of red meat within a healthy, balanced diet and lifestyle have often been submerged in a deluge of ‘scare stories’, linking consumption of red and processed meats to a higher risk of cancers and many other infirmities.
“Let’s have a look at the role of some of the protagonists in the public debate.
“Consumer lobby groups or non-governmental organisations (NGOs), often using ‘celebs’ to help advocate their views, have acquired a huge, and, some would say, a disproportionate amount of influence in Britain in recent years. Many of these groups are well informed and have demonstrated an ability to campaign very skilfully on a wide range of issues but usually have a very clear political agenda, including the denigration of what they perceive to be ‘big business’ and, in our case, the modern food and meat industries.
“For journalists seeking a news story about a particular aspect of food production, these groups are always ready to provide a good headline or ‘soundbite’ to help create public controversy. Many of these groups have become masters of the use of modern digital platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
“The media, and in particular the tabloid media, have a very clear agenda, which is to sell more newspapers. Controversy and bad news undoubtedly sell many more newspapers than ‘good news’ and many of our news titles will seek to present themselves as consumer champions by being anti-big business, and the modern food industry is definitely included here. Any problems in the food industry are still very definitely hot news in the UK.
“The internet has given millions of us the opportunity to access unlimited information the world over but this very ease of access has made it possible for us all, journalists included, to become an instant expert on an issue of the day.
“In this hectic environment, is it any surprise that standards of checking information accessed or a point of view received have tended to slip. Quick, cheap and easy access to information has produced many benefits for us all but has also brought with it lots of ‘lazy’ journalism in a world of ‘sharing’ and ‘cut and paste’.
“Scientists have a key role in bringing informed opinions and views to a public debate. We also have to recognise that some of our scientists may have a wider political and economic agenda as well. Many scientists rely on the provision of research funds from government or other sources. Am I being cynical in suggesting that the creation of doubt regarding some accepted understanding of a particular food safety related issue might be a way of attracting additional research funding?
Hazard and risk
“A key factor behind the development of a media ‘food scare’ is the inability or unwillingness of the media to differentiate between ‘hazard’ and ‘risk’. Stairs are a hazard but when used carefully present minimal risk.
“A hammer is without doubt a wonderfully crafted tool for banging in nails. However over the centuries it has also proved its worth as a very effective murder weapon. Should we therefore ban hammers?
“A hazard is the potential for harm, but its existence does not necessarily mean that harm will take place. Risk represents the probability of such harm occurring but is always linked to the extent of an individual’s exposure to a particular hazard. I suppose many believe they have a fundamental right to inhabit a world of ‘zero risk’ – sadly this is not possible, and certainly does not apply in the case of the food they chose to eat.
“Producing meat and many other foods is a biological process – the essence of producing and consuming meat safely is all about understanding, responsibility and taking acceptable and proportionate risk. Zero risk is not an option.
| Michael Blastland ‘Risk-o-Meter’
A report from the BBC website by Michael Blastland tells us a little bit of factual information behind a headline which screams that “Bacon increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 20%”. It goes as follows: 5 people in 100 have colorectal cancer in a lifetime: if all 100 eat three extra rashers of bacon everyday that rises to about six. So what that headline really means is that “about one extra case in every 100 people may possibly acquire colorectal cancer during their lifetime from eating above average amounts of bacon” – not quite such a sexy headline, is it?
“In 2007, a group representing the main meat countries supplying the UK market agreed to work together in a collaborative project entitled ‘MeatMatters’, to promote the valuable contribution of meat within a healthy, balanced diet and lifestyle.
“The MeatMatters programme is jointly funded by the bodies representing meat producers in England, Denmark, Northern & Southern Ireland and New Zealand, representing a major share of the supply of red meat and meat products to the British market.
“The campaign is primarily targeted at the consumer food media and others to highlight the positive benefits and value of red meat within a healthy, balanced diet and lifestyle.
“It has also assumed just as crucial a role in defending the place of red meat in a balanced diet and bringing some rigour to what has often been a very one-sided debate.
| Meat Advisory Panel
“Our Meat Advisory Panel (MAP) comprising a group of scientific experts from various fields of nutrition and human medicine, has played an invaluable role in bringing some much needed balance and context to the public debate about meat and health as well as carrying out a lot of excellent briefing work ‘behind the scenes’.
“The MAP spokespersons have appeared in many broadcasts concerned with aspects of the meat and health debate and have been regularly quoted in print and digital media and are regular ‘tweeters’.
“However, I would suggest that their work ‘behind the scenes’ is at least as valuable – in particular, their many ‘one to one’ contacts with the media. In addition to providing expert advice on diet and health matters, MAP members have frequently exposed the poor methodology lying behind some of the recently published ‘headline grabbing’ research.
“Many of these studies have been very limited, relying on poorly collected data on respondents’ eating habits and failing to take proper account of other relevant lifestyle factors such as lack of exercise, smoking and alcohol consumption.
“I’d now like to give you just one recent example of what I consider to be an encouraging sign of an improved quality of debate about issues affecting the meat industry.
“In August last year, the BBC Horizon series included two hour-long documentaries on consecutive nights, entitled ‘The big health dilemma’ and ‘How to feed the planet’. Both documentaries were fronted by a high profile spokesman, Dr Michael Mosley, a leading proponent of the ‘5:2 fast diet’.
| Michael Mosley – should I eat meat?
“Although MAP spokespersons were also interviewed in the making of the programmes, many of us feared the worst, anticipating yet another damning portrayal of our industry.
“What was our verdict the day after – well, not as bad as us doom-mongers had originally expected. We didn’t agree with some of the conclusions, in particular their presentation of the risks attributed to eating processed meats. However, ample airtime was given to views across the whole spectrum of the debate, including our MAP spokesmen.
The Guardian, which has never been the greatest fan of the modern food industry, said the following in its TV commentary in the aftermath of the programme.
“…an incoherent message with inconclusive results….this was hardly a shock-doc Super Size Me experiment”
Reading between the lines, I’d say these words might be loosely translated as …
“I guess this really is a complex debate but we cannot conceal our massive disappointment in not being able run yet another scary headline to hammer those unscrupulous purveyors of meat to the market.”
Eating better campaign
“What has emerged in the last year or so is possibly a more subtle communication challenge for the meat industry, along the lines of ‘Eating better’ or eating ‘less’ rather than eating ‘no’ meat.
“The ‘Eating Better’ campaign is supported by a coalition of no less than 35 NGOs – such as Compassion in World Farming, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the Soil Association – and is based on three premises:
- ‘Fair’ – as it is better for animals as we should also choose meat produced in more extensive or higher welfare production systems
- ‘Green’ - expressing the view that replacing meat with more plant based foods in the diet will bring environmental benefits
- ‘Healthy’ - reducing meat consumption will bring benefits for personal health and wellbeing
“In some respects, taking on a campaign advocating eating less meat rather than eating no meat represents a more challenging task for us but I do believe it offers a better basis for a more rational and constructive dialogue.
“Our contribution to this debate would definitely include the following thinking:
- More extensive animal production systems do not necessarily translate into higher welfare and are often less efficient than conventional production systems and may result in a higher environmental burden
- Most livestock producers can document a significant reduction in the environmental impact of their production in the last couple of decades. We can document that a Danish pork chop eaten today has half the environmental impact of a Danish pork chop produced in the 1980s. Smarter production and use of new technologies will undoubtedly lead to further reductions in the future
- General advice to reduce consumption of meat may be spot on for those eating excessive amounts of red and processed meats but, for others, simply eating less meat may compromise their balanced intake of nutrients.
“In short, we must continue to reinforce our messages about the valuable nutritional role of meat within a healthy, balanced diet and lifestyle.
“So let’s return to my original question – ‘Is no news good news’. The best answer I can give you is ‘not necessarily’.
“But my concluding message today is that there’s still a lot of painstaking work to be done behind the scenes, correcting misinformation, providing hard facts to help put the complex diet health debate in a proper context and seek a reasoned dialogue with those who are possibly in a better position than us to inform a balanced public debate.