Time for rebuttal

There is something eerily familiar about the latest round of coverage on the apparently unhealthy nature of processed meat. A report is launched, is rubbished by meat industry, but not fully addressed, and then silence. No news can be good news in that nobody is blamed outright and brought before a select committee. But on the other hand, what are the public thinking in the meantime?

Disease danger

According to a new piece of research, compiled by scientists at Harvard University, eating 50g of processed meat a day raises the risk of diabetes by 19%, and increases the chances of developing coronary heart disease by 42%. Salt and nitrate preservatives are the problem elements rather than cholesterol and saturated fats in these new findings which is why scientists at Harvard are saying that regular meat is okay, but processed is not. "The lifestyle factors associated with eating unprocessed meats and processed meats were similar, but only processed meats were linked to higher risk," said lead author Renata Micha.

Stephen Rossides, director of the British Meat Processors' Association believes more should be made of the fact this research is not new: "The Harvard study is a review of other studies and raises no complex issues that need be understood in greater depth before it's appropriate to give any dietary recommendations. There may also be differences between the nature and composition of US products as against those in this country."

True, the research is a compilation of 20 studies from 10 countries. Yet the problem is not just this one collection of studies. We have been here before, with the World Cancer Research Fund recommending in 2007 that people avoid processed meat altogether or face the risk of colorectal cancer. Do not cook with gas or over a chargrill or even eat your meat well done, other reports have told us, including one by Cancer Research UK. Does the throwing of heart problems into the mix make things much worse for the industry?

Barry Reeves, national accounts manager for sausage and burger manufacturer Penny Lane Foods has seen no downward effect on his business as a result of the recent health scares. "As long as people go out at the weekend and buy kebabs, burgers or sausages afterwards then there will be a major market for us. Plus, we're about to head into the barbecue season which will give us greatly increased sales," he says.

Shifting opinion

However, lifestyle does change if you just give it time. The tobacco and alcohol industries are more than aware of this: people cannot smoke in public places, while lunchtime drinking has fallen dramatically in recent years. Meat, particularly in its processed form, could be the next to suffer from the well-being backlash. The World Cancer Research Fund believes that public opinion is shifting already, citing a YouGov research in December last year that 36% of men and 41% of women are aware of a link between processed meat and bowel cancer.

Perhaps the industry needs to band together to form a rapid rebuttal unit. Bpex made much of an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition report in February that challenged the claims of the World Cancer Research Fund and gained useful publicity as a result. But, "You get into a situation where people are saying 'well you would say that wouldn't you?'" says one industry insider.

The alternative is to be positive in the style of Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), which recently completed a 40,000 project with Scottish Enterprise to investigate the potential to lower the salt and saturated fat content of black pudding, sausages and bacon. "This project is a great example of different parts of the industry working together. It also demonstrates there is a huge appetite in our industry to embrace new techniques developed in response to robust research and changing consumer trends," says Rachael Anderson, QMS health and education co-ordinator.

New methods demonstrated in response to robust research more of that is certainly needed to stem the tide of bad publicity washing the way of processed meats, and the more press releases sent out in this vein, the better.