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Global experts rebut 'safe meat' report

Cancer charities have criticised a study that misinterprets the facts on healthy eating – and say meat reducing is still best

Posted : 9 October 2019

Forget what you may have read this month about red and processed meat being safe to eat: if you care for your health, it’s best to stick to guidelines and cut back on the meat, according to a slew of global experts.

Organisations including Bowel Cancer UK, the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) have lined up to condemn the findings of a dubious report that attempts to reassure people they are eating a safe amount of meat and do not need to change their diets. The experts concur that the report is wrong, and meat reducing is the only way forward.

Published this month in the Annals of Internal Medicine by a consortium called NutriRECS, the study claims there is no strong scientific evidence to back up years of warnings about the adverse health effects of high meat consumption, including that it contributes to strokediabetes and heart disease, and raises your risk of cancers including lung cancer and kidney cancer.

But top experts from around the world have thrown their weight behind the science, saying the report’s authors have misinterpreted the evidence and their central claim that high meat consumption poses no risk to human health should be ignored. The most egregious misuse of facts sees NutriRECS stating that eating three of four portions of processed meat a week poses no significant shift in cancer risk, something that has been debunked over many years and many studies.

In 2012, researchers in Uruguay concluded processed meat was a “powerful multi-organ carcinogen” and said the offenders most “strongly associated with risk of several cancer sites” were mortadella, salami, hot dogs, ham and salted meat. In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer categorised cured and processed meat as a group 1 carcinogen, alongside tobacco.

Professor Walter Willett, of Harvard School of Public Health and the EAT-Lancet Commission, a global panel of health, environmental and economic experts that support greener, planet-based eating, said: “This report has layers of flaws and is the most egregious abuse of evidence that I have ever seen.”

The New York Times has established that Bradley C. Johnston, the director and co-founder of NutriRECS, and the study’s lead author, failed in the past to declare his links to the meat and food industry. In 2016 he wrote a similar report, debunking the adverse health effects of sugar, funded by a trade group that has counted the likes of US beef processor Cargill, McDonald’s, Coco-Cola and PepsiCo among its members.

WCRF’s director of research, Dr Giota Mitrou, said people who took the report as encouragement to pile red and processed meat back onto their plates were putting themselves at risk. “The message people need to hear is that we should be eating no more than three portions of red meat a week and eat little, if any, processed meat. We stand by our rigorous research of the last 30 years and urge the public to follow the current recommendations on red and processed meat.”

Dr Nigel Brockton, AICR’s vice-president of research, added: “Regularly eating processed meat, and higher consumption of red meat, increases your risk of colorectal cancer; suggesting that there is no need to limit these foods would put people at risk of colorectal cancer and further undermine public confidence in dietary advice.”

Given the extent to which the report was challenging the scientific orthodoxy on meat eating, it’s clear its findings would be challenged and found wanting. Now if any of your friends, family or colleagues try to use it to defend their diets, you’ll know how to respond!

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