The big 'Cs' got the meat industry in trouble last week - cancer and credibility.
In the face of a major scientific study linking a 30 per cent increased risk of cancer with processed meat products, industry associations reacted quite strongly against the findings - when they would have been wiser to have just kept their mouths shut. The scientific review of 7,000 studies was completed for the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and the American Institute for Cancer Research, very credible organisations. The scientists concluded that raw and processed meats are "convincing or probable causes of some cancers". They also recommended that "people who eat red meat" should consume less than 500 g a week "very little if any to be processed". They also went out of their way to emphasise that their "overall recommendation is not for diets containing no meat - or diets containing no foods of animal origin". In other words, eat meat if you have to, but sparingly. Andrew Wadge, chief scientist for the UK's Food Standards Agency, quite rightly noted on his blog that the consumer would have had a hard week of digesting the cancer study (along with another on folic acid). "I suspect that most people will simply ignore these messages and carry on with their usual dietary habits, which is a shame because there are relatively easy steps we can take to improve our diet and reduce risks of disease," he wrote. As a massive meat eater myself (my French friends have nicknamed me 'Mr Barbeque"), I will find it hard or impossible to follow this advice, and so too, I suspect, will most non-vegetarians. Processed foods are also a part of the make up of our daily modern diet. A more perfect diet would of course be to eat entirely fresh foods, cooked from scratch. But we must remember Spam and other processed products of that ilk, have saved many lives during wartime and emergencies, and during peace offer the convenience that frees us up to have some fun time during our fast paced lives. And increasingly some of the processed ready-to-eat products on the market are frankly better tasting than I might have been able to make myself. So in reality the cancer study posed no foreseeable direct economic threat to the meat sector. Why then did the meat sectors in North America and Europe react against the report so strongly? The American Meat Institute was the most extreme, discounting the study as biased and plain wrong. The organisation claimed bizarrely that the cancer associations were "anti-meat" in the first place. "WCRF's conclusions are extreme, unfounded and out of step with dietary guidelines," said one of the AMI's scientists, Randy Huffman, citing US dietary guidelines put out by government regulators. I thought that dietary guidelines are based on science among other factors - and not vice versa! The UK's meat organisations approached the issue in a more moderate tone, noting that processed meat is "part of a balanced diet", and also referring to dietary guidelines. The problem is the story was already out in the media as a hot conclusion from a credible organisation. In the face of this media coverage any statements from the meat industry, other than "follow the advice of eating less meat", would sound non-credible to any consumer. They would have been advised at this point to remain quiet and watch the study's conclusions disappear off consumers' agendas. Ahmed ElAmin is editor of FoodProductionDaily.com. He is a business journalist who specialises in development issues, food, wine, technology, international business and finance. To comment on this article please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.