My last post was a quick summary of my initial thoughts about the report coming out of the World Health Organisation (WHO? you ask, and you would be correct). The report concerned the need to cut back on both red meat and processed meat and the links between both and various forms of cancer. This is something that I have been thinking more about over the last few days; you know, in those fleeting moments when I am not thinking about food, or beer, or how I am not going for a run but really should be.
I have been thinking that it is a really good example of the various problems I have with food and, more accurately, with the way we are given information about food. Because, at the end of the day, it is you and I who will be putting it into our mouths and eating it, and we ought to be told the correct information about what we are eating.
In no particular order, here are some of the things that occurred to me in the few days after this news was reported…
The headlines were wrong
Not all of them, of course, but enough. The Daily Express, for example, went with “Processed meat is as bad as smoking”. This is not true (NHS) and risks both knee-jerk reactions and confusing people with blatantly incorrect information. We cannot make informed decisions if we are being misinformed.
It’s easy to misunderstand what we’re being told
The WHO (and the International Agency for Research on Cancer) have classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen: one that is a definite cause of cancer (Cancer Research UK). This is the same group as smoking.
But, it is important to understand what the IARC means when it gives this classification: it is a classification telling us how confident the IARC is that processed meat causes cancer and not how much cancer processed meat causes. They can say with equal confidence that smoking and processed meat both cause cancer. But it doesn’t mean that processed meat causes the same amount of cancer as smoking.
It contains one of those counter-intuitive pieces of information
Red meat, the other subject of the report alongside processed meat, has been classified as a Group 2a carcinogen: a “probable” cause of cancer (Cancer Research UK). The report reminds us that red meat “refers to all mammalian muscle meat, including, beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat” (IARC).
Yes, that’s right: pork is classified as red meat. I’m sure I knew this, but for some reason I struggle to remember that pork is red meat. So it is important to read the details, otherwise we risk inadvertently doing the wrong things.
The immediate reaction in my part of the country understandably focussed on the impact on the farmers. “Supporters of meat industry hit back at report claiming red and processed meat raise cancer risk” said the Western Morning News. The National Farmers Union’s president Meurig Raymond was quoted as saying that: “The NFU has always stated that eating lean red meat has an important role to play in a healthy balanced diet. It’s a traditional part of the British lifestyle and is enjoyed by most of the population” (The Guardian).
My personal view is that farmers have a right to be concerned. But it is the misreporting of the story and the wave of knee-jerk reactions that can follow in its wake that they should be fighting against, not the report itself. The IARC themselves say that “eating meat has known health benefits” and the NHS advice is that “it is unnecessary to cut red meat out all together as it is a good source of nutrients, including protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12” but, at the same time, “if you currently eat a large amount of red and processed meats, it might be good for you to cut down.”
If you choose to eat meat, then there should be nothing in this report that tells you to stop doing so. But it is attempting to highlight a risk that you face if you eat meat and the advice seems to be to check your consumption and, if necessary, to cut down. Cutting back may not be the best news for farmers, but it isn’t as bad as it could have been had the “meat = smoking” headlines been correct (that is, of course, reliant on us consumers realising just what we are being told and not believing the misinformation).
We all know that you should never read the bottom half of the internet, but I did venture down there for a brief and depressing spell. Alongside the usual hubbub, I read lots of comments about the rights and wrongs of eating meat. Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t a debate to be had about that particular subject, but this report is not tackling that topic. I worry that re-framing this story into a “should we eat meat at all” argument risks undermining the important message about the amount and type of meat that the omnivores among us should be eating.
The simple fact is that lots of people do eat meat and, for those people, it is important that we understand what we should and, more importantly, shouldn’t be eating. As we have seen, this story is already confusing enough without adding in the complication of whether it is right or wrong to eat meat at all. That debate has its own place and, believe me, you definitely do not want to travel to the bottom half of those sections of the internet; there are a lot of angry people out there.
And that’s just the beginning…
This is why it is difficult to properly understand the messages we are being given about our food. We have to fight just to ensure that we get to the unadorned facts of what we are being told and, perfectly understandably, most of us don’t bother. But it is our health and our well-being that we risk if we don’t make that effort.
It should be easier than this.