Filed Under: Food Scares Livestock Meat

Despite Scary Headlines, Cheeseburger Apocalypse Unlikely

Front-page headlines and wire reports are flashing major red (meat) sirens today. Their source is two items in the latest edition of the Archives of Internal Medicine: an observational study from the National Cancer Institute and an editorial written by well-known food scaremonger Barry Popkin. The overall message, reflected in fear-inducing headlines like this, is the sort of doomsday scenario we would normally expect from PETA or Greenpeace: Eating tasty meats is your death knell, and your home planet’s. But before you take their word for it, you may want to ask yourself if you ever plan on getting married — or helping the world’s 1.2 billion poor people. We’ll explain.

As we’ve been telling reporters, the National Cancer Institute performed some impressive statistical gymnastics to come to its conclusion – its modest conclusion – that cutting red and processed meats out of your diet could be a life-saver.  Using the same logic, however, the report found three other contributors to early mortality that have yet to make an appearance in today’s panic hour.

According to the NCI study, there is also a relationship between premature death and smoking, sedentary lifestyles, and marriage.

Marriage? Yes, you read that right. But if the 500,000 “food frequency questionnaires” the NCI collected aren’t enough to send you filing for divorce, you’re in good company. As we’ve said time and again, trying to make recommendations that separate diets from lifestyles is pure guesswork. Doing so requires the kinds of logical contortions that tell us eating meat or getting married are acts akin to suicide.

But Barry Popkin must have known that the NCI study wouldn’t be enough to convince you to jump on the tofu train, so he made sure to cover some non-health bases in his editorial. Unfortunately for him, they’re equally unconvincing.

Popkin brought a shade of green to today’s breathless reports by throwing some tired and debunked environmental claims into the anti-meat mix. But as Dr. Carlos Sere of the International Livestock Research Institute argued today on the BBC, such recommendations ignore some crucial global considerations:

[A]s the world moves to address climate change and reduce emissions, we must make sure that the push to reduce the environmental impact of livestock production in rich countries does not hurt the availability of milk, meat, eggs, and other products in developing countries…

Livestock production remains an essential pathway out of poverty in many poor countries, where increasing consumption of animal products also helps reduce malnutrition among the poorest communities.

When allocating resources for agricultural development, which is a long-neglected sector, policymakers and aid agencies need to use different strategies for different regions and populations.

It’s unfortunate that none of today’s gloomy anti-meat articles looked at these “bigger picture” issues. But at least from a health perspective, the best advice out there – exercise and moderation – tends to survive flavor-of-the-month food alarmism. Hopefully this month’s edition is no exception.

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