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More balanced discussion

A question of balance

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.

See report

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
  • 2.A. Probably carcinogenic to humans
  • 2.B. 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.

Sensational headlines

A lot of the early coverage carried predictably sensationalist headlines - take a look at some of these headlines The Sun Telegraph Daily Mail Guardian Express

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 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, such as the Zoe Harcombe Blog.

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 on the role of meat in supplying valuable nutrients within a varied and balanced diet.

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.

However, there is still a lot of residual goodwill 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!