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3. A question of balance

Unsurprisingly, the recent WHO report placing processed and red meat into a ‘carcinogenic’ and ‘probably carcinogenic’ categorisation attracted blanket coverage in the media. However, some of the more lurid headlines ran alongside other editorial which presented a more balanced perspective of a complex issue of health and nutrition, within which meat is acknowledged as a valuable source of essential nutrients.

It has been impossible to escape the tsunami of media coverage which followed the publication of the report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) at the end of October. Their review was initially published in The Lancet.

The IARC operates under the umbrella of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and reviews a wide range of ‘situations’ or ‘agents’, which may affect our exposure to cancer, such as the general environment in which we live, our workplace environment and a variety of personal habits, including diet.

A scientific panel then collects available ‘evidence’ and allocates the item or subject under review to one of five categories linked to its ‘carcinogenicity’:

  • 1. Carcinogenic to humans
  • 2A. Probably carcinogenic to humans
  • 2B. Possibly carcinogenic to humans
  • 3. Not classifiable
  • 4. Probably not carcinogenic to humans

The latest IARC ‘monograph’ placed Red Meat in Category 2A (‘Probably carcinogenic’) and Processed Meat in Category 1 (‘Carcinogenic’). This category included other ‘agents’ such as tobacco, plutonium and solar radiation.

 

 
 Sensationalist headlines

 

A lot of the early coverage carried predictably sensationalist headlines:

However, in many cases news of the IARC findings was put alongside more balanced commentary. Comments from the Meat Advisory Panel (MAP) spokespersons were also frequently quoted, highlighting that the IARC study merely highlighted the strength of available evidence that a certain agent may cause cancer and was in no way suggesting that processed meats carried a risk similar to that of, for example, smoking tobacco. The evidence regarding a causal relationship between cancer and a single ingredient, such as red and processed meat, still remained weak and the average UK consumption of red and processed meat (71g per day) is in line with government guidelines. Moderate intake of red and processed meat within a healthy and varied diet provides an invaluable source of essential nutrients – protein, iron, vitamins A & D, zinc.

The statements from Cancer UK were also widely quoted, with a key message that, while some of us should consider reducing consumption of red and processed meat, the valuable nutritional contribution of red meat within a balanced diet and lifestyle should be recognised.

 

 
 More balanced discussion

 
More balanced debate

To set against many unhelpful and frequently inaccurate headlines, there were also a number of other articles and blogs published, which raised questions about the plausibility and statistical basis of the IARC recommendations:

Although many commentators highlighted the ‘bad science’ behind some of the IARC analysis, there were concerns expressed about some of the cheaper, lower quality and more highly processed meat products of today. This may well prove to be the main fallout for the meat industry from this current episode.

More recent publicity in the IndependentGuardian and Daily Express reported data released by IRi Retail Advantage, suggesting that retail sales of bacon and sausages had been adversely affected by the IARC announcement and the ensuing media ‘storm’.

The AHDB contested the conclusions drawn from the IRI data, as reported in Meat Management, and anecdotal evidence from the trade suggested that, while sales had been affected in the days following the release of the IARC Report, business had now returned to more normal levels.

So, while the media coverage of the IARC included some very negative headlines in the early days after the report was released, there had also been ample coverage to the role of meat in supplying valuable nutrients within a varied and balanced diet.

Further reports

It is vital that the industry keeps up its work ‘behind the scenes’ to encourage proper differentiation between ‘hazard’ and ‘risk’ to ensure more balanced reporting.

In recent weeks, the Daily Mail reported on new research from Oxford University, suggesting a link between meat consumption to bowel cancer. The Telegraph reported on research from the University of Texas, suggesting a link between consumption of barbecued meat to cancer of the kidney and the Daily Mail Research from Germany, linking consumption of red meat to higher risk of strokes.

…and we learn from Global Meat News that the WHO will be publishing a follow-up report on Processed and Red Meat during 2016.

So, there is no room for complacency.

 

 
 116 years old and still enjoying bacon every morning

 

However, there is still a lot of residual good will towards bacon and sausages which was reflected in much of the recent coverage……not least the story in the Independent that the oldest human being in the world, Susannah Mushatt Jones, a 116 year old resident of New York, enjoys bacon every morning.

Finally, spare a thought for many long-suffering males. According to a report from the 'Sizzling Pubs' group, over 50% of the male population suffer from LMS or ‘Lack of Meat’ syndrome, whose symptoms include lack of energy, sadness, mood swings and anger! 
 

 
 …afflicts over 50% of the male population