Cancer row erupts over red meat

The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) has been accused of being on an "anti-meat crusade" after it reportedly refused to acknowledge claims that its high-profile report linking meat and cancer was found to have "significant" flaws. However, the WCRF has hit back, branding the accusations as "outrageous" and "ludicrous", and claiming any flaws were too minor to have affected overall conclusions.

Meat bosses said investigations carried out by academics Dr Stewart Truswell, of the University of Sydney, and Dr Dominik Alexander, of Exponent, and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, highlighted what they claimed were a number of errors and omissions in the WCRF review, published in 2007.

They claimed the report included analytical inconsistencies and data extraction errors in the evidence presented, which could have contributed to an overestimate of the association between eating red meat and the risk of colorectal cancer (CRC). The conclusion of Dr Alexander's review was that "there is no conclusive evidence of causal relationship" between eating meat and CRC.

The meat industry has now publicly hit out at the WCRF, claiming it is refusing to acknowledge the new evidence. In a joint statement from Eblex and Bpex, John Cross, Eblex chairman, claimed: "In one diagram alone, there were six basic factual errors. Privately, WCRF has acknowledged the errors in the report, but it seems reluctant to acknowledge these errors in an open way.

"The published report remains intact and WCRF will not consider publishing anything new until sometime later this year, when their own review is completed. They will not meet with us before then. They also refused to contact the Food Standards Agency or the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition formally to highlight the problems."

The joint statement quotes another leading cancer expert, who accuses the WCRF of being on an anti-meat crusade. Cancer specialist Professor Karol Sikora said: "While vegetables and fruit contain protective factors, there is almost no evidence that red meat itself actually causes cancer.

"The WRCF does seem to be following an anti-meat crusade. This is extremely misleading for the public, who are thoroughly confused by being bombarded with mixed messages. If there is no clear conclusion, then definitive recommendations should be avoided."

Eblex director Nick Allen has now briefed industry stakeholders, including the National Farmers Union, National Beef Association, National Sheep Association, Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, British Meat Processors Association and Livestock Auctioneers' Association, on the situation at a special meeting last week. All are now considering further action. Both the NFU and NBA have expressed outrage at the WCRF's perceived failure to act.

NFU livestock board chairman Alistair Mackintosh said: “I am appalled that flawed evidence has been used to draw links between eating red meat and cancer. The NFU is calling for the World Cancer Research Fund to recognise the discrepancies that have been highlighted."

However, the WCRF has hit back at the industry, accusing it of misleading the public by making what it claimed were factually inaccurate and potentially defamatory comments.

Describing the situation as a "coordinated attack", the WCRF said it will continue to stand behind its recommendation to limit intake of red meat to 500g (cooked weight) per week and avoid processed meat. It said this was the conclusion of an independent panel of international scientists, who judged the evidence that red meat consumption increases bowel cancer risk to be convincing, following the biggest review of the evidence ever undertaken.

Its statement said: "The meat lobby accuses WCRF of making mistakes in analysing the scientific literature about the link between meat and bowel cancer and then refusing to admit to these mistakes. This is not true.

"Any errors in the report were too minor to have affected the overall conclusions. These are detailed on our website at http://www.dietandcancerreport.org/?p=errors_and_omissions and have been set out in detail in letters to the meat industry."

The organisation added it was not aware of any review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It said it was "aware of Dr Truswell publishing a letter in the AJCN, which was printed with an accompanying letter from WCRF, responding to his points. Dr Alexander published a review of the evidence on whether animal fats and animal proteins affect cancer risk. But this is not the same as a review of the link between meat and cancer, as much animal fat and protein is dairy. WCRF is aware he has conducted a review of the evidence on the link between meat and cancer, but because this has not been published, it is not in the public domain and so cannot be commented on".

Professor Martin Wiseman, Project Director of the Report, said: “These insinuations are nothing short of outrageous. The truth is that we have had open dialogue with the meat industry for many months on exactly these issues and we have given them all the information they have requested.

“I invited them to share this information with the Food Standards Agency and others. But it appears they are only interested in creating doubt in people’s minds. The implication that we are somehow a tool of the anti-meat lobby is ludicrous. We say explicitly that red meat has important nutritional benefits and we do not recommend avoiding it altogether."