Scientific evidence on the environmental and health impacts of red and processed meat is being undermined by the industry’s claim that meat consumption is healthy, according to new research into how key industry players frame dialogue around eating meat.
In the first peer-reviewed systematic analysis on the topic, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) investigated documentation from six meat industry bodies mentioning meat, health and/or the environment.
Documents including reports, guides and educational material claim the scientific evidence was ‘still open for debate’, citing a lack of consensus on the issue as a reason to question the evidence’s credibility.
Researchers say industry may be trying to shape perceptions and affect policy decisions using marketing techniques commonly utilised by producers of harmful products such as tobacco.
“Promoting messages that minimise the potential environmental and health harms of red and processed meat consumption could affect the perceived urgency of this issue on the policy agenda,” says Dr James Milner, Assistant Professor, Centre on Climate Change and Planetary Health, LSHTM, and report senior author. These findings are a “call to action for greater scrutiny of the industry” as addressing people’s appetite for meat is key to efforts to prevent climate breakdown and improve public health.
Current scientific research suggests that how livestock is farmed can affect carbon emissions, but improved practices are not enough to achieve the necessary reduction, so people must also cut consumption. Other research states that a plant-based diet is a healthier choice than meat-based as even small quantities of meat could adversely affect health.
However, meat industry documents counteract this evidence by claiming livestock farming has environmental benefits because the land acts as a carbon sink, and that grazing animals are part of the solution to global warming. They also state that eating a certain amount of meat is safe, and as most people don’t eat too much, there is no need to reduce consumption.
“The 2021 National Food Strategy for England recommended that meat consumption should be cut by 30% in the next decade.”
“There is growing evidence to suggest that current consumption trends of red and processed meat are a threat to both human health and the health of the planet and this is increasingly being recognised in UK policy spheres,” stated Dr Kathryn Clare, report lead author. “The 2021 National Food Strategy for England, for example, recommended that meat consumption should be cut by 30% in the next decade.”
The findings suggest the meat industry may be using various frames that counteract this narrative, but it’s unclear if there’s a direct impact on consumer behaviour or policy, says Clare. The industry has a powerful voice and their input on issues relating to meat consumption “should be of serious concern to those involved in food or sustainability policy”.
“There is growing national and international consensus on the need to reduce meat consumption for environmental and population health reasons," says Kate Thompson, CIEH Director. "The consumption of meat is slowly declining in the UK. This is a threat to the meat industry who are naturally going to respond to protect interests and impede policy action which could harm industry. The result is mixed messaging which is not in the interests of consumers”.
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