Don’t be blinded by the bad reporting: we really should eat less meat. But maybe not for the reason you’ve heard.
On Tuesday, the internet exploded with the news that the world’s leading cancer research agency had classified processed meats like bacon, sausages and salami as definite causes of bowel cancer, and red meat as a probable cause.
The meta-analysis of 800 studies by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) found “sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer”.
Many media outlets misreported the announcement as processed meat “ranking alongside” or even being “as bad as” smoking. The confusion resulted from processed meat being classed as a Group 1 carcinogen – the same classification as smoking.
The actual difference in risk is enormous. For example, in the UK (which has a similar diet to Australia), scientists estimated that smoking was responsible for 19 per cent of all cancers, whereas processed meats were responsible for three per cent, Cancer Research UK reported.
And the IARC itself calculated that red meat, if the suspected link was true, would account for some 50,000 global cancer deaths per year, compared to an estimated one million from alcohol and 200,000 from air pollution.
Some media outlets also suggested that we were being told to swear off meat altogether. Not true. The message from the IARC report was moderation.
“For those who are already eating meat in moderation, we don’t want them to think they’ve got to suddenly quit the meat and become vegetarian,” Cancer Council Australia nutrition expert Kathy Chapman said.
But if the mildly bad news about bacon caused you to reconsider your own diet, there are other reasons to eat a bit less meat, whether its red, white, processed, smoked, salted, cured, fermented or fried.
Meat, especially the rearing of cattle, contributes to soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions and damage to limited water resources, an ecology expert told The New Daily.
“Some of it can be mitigated by the way the livestock are managed, but we see a lot of erosion in creeks and riverbanks due to trampling by cattle,” La Trobe University’s Dr Susan Lawler said.
“Any hard-hoofed animal compacts the fragile Australian soils in a way that is harmful for native plants and animals.”
But mountain herding, where cattle graze on land that would otherwise go unused, is “fine”, Dr Lawler said.
Growing meat is also a misuse of the limited resources available to feed humans, Dr Lawler said.
“Most meat products use grain and soy in animal feed that could have been used for human consumption.
“As we try to feed more people, the inefficiency of livestock as a food source will become more apparent.
“We lose 90 per cent of the protein, 99 per cent of the carbohydrates and 100 per cent of the fibre when grains are fed to chickens, pigs or cows.”
Three factors are currently pushing up the price of beef.
These are tight supply, the weak Australian dollar and strong export demand, Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) reported.
Drought is taking its toll, as foreign buyers cash in, making it tougher for consumers to buy their favourite juicy bit of cow. The same factors are pushing up lamb prices too, according to MLA.
Australians’ favourite meat, chicken, is a lot cheaper, but that’s because we mass produce so much of it.
Not quite cruelty free
Plants feel nothing. Animals do.
Whether it’s a battery hen’s cramped conditions, the beating sun of a drought-stricken pasture, a kick from an impatient slaughter house employee or the rusty knife of an overseas butcher, there is always the risk, however remote, that your meal felt pain.
Australia has world-class industry standards, but every so often a scandal emerges – and is dutifully reported by the ABC.
If that weighs on your conscience, perhaps it’s a reason to quit.
Supplanter of plants
Australians, like many in the Western world, already eat too much protein and too little of the life-giving green stuff.
The less meat on our plates, perhaps the more fruits and vegetables.
“Definitely meat in moderation is another good reason to be upping our fruits and vegetables,” Cancer Council Australia’s Kathy Chapman said.
“We know only about one-in-10 people get the five serves of veggies a day, so this message about the processed meat and the red meat is really a good chance to think about our plates as a whole.
“When we talk about dinner tonight, do we talk about having steak or do we talk about having steak and veggies or steak and salad?”
But if you really want to …
If none of those convince you, then you should do as the experts say and eat meat in moderation.
The national dietary guidelines recommend no more than 65 grams of red meat per serve, and no more than 455 grams per week.
And if you’re scrambling for some good news, here’s some: meat lovers needn’t worry too much about parasites and food poisoning, so long as they aren’t fans of sushi.
Because most meat is cooked before it is eaten, the risk of falling ill is small, an expert told The New Daily.
“With parasites in general, you can kill them by mild heat treatment or even by freezing,” The University of Melbourne food scientist Dr Said Ajlouni said.
“Generally speaking, we don’t eat meat raw, so the risk from that perspective is very minimal if we don’t say zero.”