Industry hits back at red meat consumption report

By Aidan Fortune

- Last updated on GMT

A new report calling for a reduction in red meat consumption has been criticised by the international meat industry
A new report calling for a reduction in red meat consumption has been criticised by the international meat industry

Related tags Beef Lamb Livestock Pork

The international meat industry has hit back at a new report suggesting that red meat intake be halved in order to improve health and ensure a global food system.

The report, published by the EAT-Lancet Commission, suggested that global consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar to decrease by about 50%, while consumption of nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes must double. It suggested that these new diets be in place by 2050 and that it might need to be applied locally, citing the example of countries in North America that eat almost 6.5 times the recommended amount of red meat, while countries in South Asia eat only half the recommended amount.

“The food we eat and how we produce it determines the health of people and the planet, and we are currently getting this seriously wrong,”​ said commission co-author Professor Tim Lang of the City University of London, UK. “We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before in ways appropriate to each country’s circumstances. While this is unchartered policy territory and these problems are not easily fixed, this goal is within reach and there are opportunities to adapt international, local and business policies. The scientific targets we have devised for a healthy, sustainable diet are an important foundation which will underpin and drive this change.”

Co-lead commissioner Dr Walter Willett of Harvard University in the US, stressed the health advice submitted in the report. “The world’s diets must change dramatically. More than 800 million people have insufficient food, while many more consume an unhealthy diet that contributes to premature death and disease.

“To be healthy, diets must have an appropriate calorie intake and consist of a variety of plant-based foods, low amounts of animal-based foods, unsaturated rather than saturated fats, and few refined grains, highly processed foods, and added sugars. The food group intake ranges that we suggest allow flexibility to accommodate various food types, agricultural systems, cultural traditions, and individual dietary preferences – including numerous omnivore, vegetarian and vegan diets.”

The report is a culmination of a three-year project that brought together 37 experts from 16 countries with expertise in health, nutrition, environmental sustainability, food systems, economics and political governance.

However, the UK’s Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) said the report was flawed. “This report appears to be another example of well-intentioned but potentially flawed thinking on how we reduce our impact on the environment,”​ said strategy director for beef and lamb Will Jackson. “Farming, in particular dairy and red meat, is part of the solution, making best use of naturally occurring assets to feed a growing population. They are an important nutritional part of a healthy, balanced diet.

“Despite the modelling presented by the EAT-Lancet Commission, no study has specifically assessed the environmental impact of diets based solely – or largely – on plant-based protein, as opposed to a mixed diet containing animal protein,”​ added Jackson. “Meeting the nutritional needs of a growing UK population from plant-based proteins would likely rely much more heavily on imported food, which may be produced to lower environmental standards.

“Many of the meat alternative products we are seeing on supermarket shelves are ultra-processed, often from cheaply available materials.”

The UK’s British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) criticised the report for a lack of balance. “The EAT-Lancet Commission seems to be depicting livestock farming as a static activity that’s incapable of evolving to reduce its environmental impact. It conveniently ignores the many initiatives and technological advancements happening right now in farming. It also downplays the much-needed nutritional benefit of animal protein in the human diet and the important part it plays in feeding the world’s populations.

“On a more cynical note, the campaign could open the door for new (and old) players in food and agriculture to capitalise on a lucrative new market, and for governments to eye new tax opportunities in an attempt to curb meat-eating.

“There are always two sides to every argument and it’s important to understand that the claims that EAT-Lancet are putting forward are not all backed-up by the ‘sound science’ they claim on their website. Nor do they always explain how their goals can practically be met.”

In the US, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) described the report as “dubious and irresponsible”​.

NPPC president Jim Heimerl said: “While two of the report’s concerns are sustainability and undernutrition, its radical recommendations would be counterproductive to both. There is ample scientific evidence supporting the nutritive value of meat, including pork, which has critical vitamins and minerals, such as B12, Heme iron, zinc and potassium. These often are lacking in many diets, particularly in developing countries.

“As for sustainability, the US animal agriculture sector is among the most environmentally friendly in the world. A 2018 study from the University of Arkansas found that, over the past 55-plus years, US pork producers have cut their land use by nearly 76%, water use by more than 25% and energy use by 7%; their carbon footprint today is almost 8% less than it was in 1960.”

Beef + Lamb New Zealand offered a balanced response to the report. “New Zealand is already adopting many of the strategies recommended by the report’s authors, including committing to healthy diet goals, reorienting agricultural priorities to producing high-quality healthy food in a sustainable way and supporting biodiversity,” ​said chief insight officer Jeremy Baker. “It is also important to remember EAT-Lancet is making many of its recommendations based on farming systems not commonly used in New Zealand, such as grain-fed livestock production, when in fact we are a world leader in producing grass-fed red meat.”

Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s head of nutrition Fiona Greig did question the health implications of the recommendations in the report. “We support a range of healthy dietary patterns with and without meat. However, I have concerns that the suggested reduction could have implications for vulnerable groups, especially young women who may already be suffering from nutrient deficiencies.”

“Advocating a plant-based diet is not new and is something Beef + Lamb New Zealand has been advising for over two decades. Our advice has always been to ensure when eating red meat, that three-quarters of your plate is made up of plant-based foods.”

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