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Fact or opinion?

Nearly a year has passed since the release of the WHO/IARC monograph (International Agency for Research on Cancer).

This monograph appeared to group processed meats with asbestos, plutonium and smoking in terms of their cancer risk.

The ‘anti-meat’ mantra in much of the media is still alive and well - and so are most bacon consumers, according to the latest data from GB consumer panels. Although overall retail purchases were down by just two per cent in the latest annual comparison, bacon has been eaten on more breakfast occasions than the previous year, according to data from Kantar.

This week, research released by Harvard University in the US, suggesting an association between consumption of animal proteins and mortality, led to headlines such as ‘Ditch sausages for a longer life’ in the Daily Telegraph, ‘Why a vegan diet can help you live longer’ in the Mail on Sunday. So, game, set and match again to the vegetarian lobby.

Not all of us have yet had the time to read the Harvard report from cover to cover, but I’m sure our good friends in the press will have done before composing their predictable headlines.

However, let’s have a look beyond the simplistic media view and consider some of the observations of Professor Robert Pickard of the Meat Advisory Panel.

First, the data was not drawn from the most scientifically robust sources:

“Much of the data has been drawn from respondents’ recollections of their diet over a previous period of time, up to twelve months. Their individual judgements are not sufficiently reliable to allow researchers to draw such refined and detailed conclusions.”

Secondly, the research itself also confirmed that other universally accepted poor lifestyle factors had to be taken into account:

“The individuals who appeared to benefit from more plant protein were already disadvantaged by being obese, smoking and drinking high levels of alcohol. Healthy individuals did not show any significant benefits from consuming more plant protein.”

Thirdly, the research data is not new but a fresh analysis of existing studies in the US, which may bear little relevance to the UK population:

“This paper does not provide any new data or experimental data. It is a revision of two existing studies on US health workers. The study population, which has been drawn from the general public in the US, is very different to that of the UK general public where diet and lifestyles are very different. As a result, this research cannot be applied to a UK population in any aspect.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, data published by the OECD for 2015 ranked US consumers 2nd highest in the world as regards their carnivorous habits, expressed by the average amounts of meat eaten per head of the population. We Brits didn’t even make the Top 20.

Did the correspondents from the Daily Telegraph, Mail on Sunday and other worthy publications challenge the Harvard academics on concerns such as these, which may well have influenced their choice of headlines and reporting of this latest research?

What do you think?

4th August 2016