Daily Mail red meat and cancer article

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Red meat: a cancer risk factor?
Red meat: a cancer risk factor?

The Daily Mail published an article on Saturday about a new review of the evidence on red meat and health.

The Mail tells us that the review finds that “after years of worrying that tucking into red meat could lead to a heart attack or cancer, you can relax and enjoy the Sunday roast”.

So does this new review mean that World Cancer Research Fund’s cancer prevention recommendation to limit consumption of red meat to 500g (cooked weight) a week and avoid processed meat should change?

In a word, no.

This new paper is not a systematic review of the evidence and does change the fact that there is convincing evidence that red and processed meat increase risk of bowel cancer.

This review is essentially just the opinions of its authors. And to suggest, as they have done, that there is “no evidence” that a moderate intake of lean red meat has any negative health effects is wrong.

But despite this, many people will either get the impression that red meat does not increase risk of cancer, or that scientists are always changing their minds about what is good and bad for us.

This is unhelpful and means that despite the strength of the scientific evidence, many people do not have the information they need to make their own informed choice about how much red meat to eat.

The Daily Mail gave us the chance to respond to the new review and Saturday’s article included most of our quote. And to be fair, The Mail states prominently that we dispute the findings, rather than just burying our quote at the end of the article. You can read our full response on the WCRF website.

But it is disappointing that the Mail turned the part of our quote where we referred to the review as “meat industry-funded” into saying we “said the study was being promoted by the meat industry”.

This may sound like splitting hairs, but it’s an important distinction.

After all, the meat industry funding a review is different from just promoting the findings of a review that it had no involvement in.

Here is what the review says under the “conflict of interest” section:

“The BNF (British Nutrition Foundation) is grateful to the British Pork Executive (BPEX) and the English Beef and Lamb Executive (EBLEX) divisions of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) for financially supporting time spent on the preparation of this review and for providing some useful data on the composition and consumption of meat. However, the views expressed in this paper are those of the authors alone, and AHDB has not been involved in writing or shaping any of the contents.”

In other words, it makes it clear that BPEX and EBLEX, both part of the meat industry, have financially supported this review.

The source of the funding is important and raises the question of whether the review’s conclusions are significant enough to be worthy of a page lead in a national newspaper.

It is true that the “conflict of interest” section makes it clear that the meat industry had no involvement in the “writing or shaping any of the contents” and that the “views expressed in this paper are those of the authors alone”.

We cannot argue with this because it is impossible to know the thought process by which conclusions were reached.  It is entirely possible that these authors would have arrived at exactly the same conclusions even if the meat industry had not been involved.

But the source of funding for research is worth considering. For example, a review of soft drinks and health found that studies funded by the food industry reported significantly smaller effects than those reported in studies that had not been funded by industry.

We suggest that people are best advised listening to the findings of studies that have not been funded by special interest groups. And these studies suggest there is strong evidence that red and processed meats increase risk of bowel cancer.

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