Red and processed meat trade linked to diet-related NCDs in Europe

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

Researchers are calling on exporters and importers to ‘urgently’ undertake cross-sectoral actions to reduce health impacts association with meat trade. GettyImages/ArtEvent ET
Researchers are calling on exporters and importers to ‘urgently’ undertake cross-sectoral actions to reduce health impacts association with meat trade. GettyImages/ArtEvent ET

Related tags: Meat, NCD

Researchers say incidence of disease-specific NCDs in some northern and eastern European countries have ‘rapidly increased’ due to red and processed meat trade.

A study examining the impact of red and processed meat trade on diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) suggests a number of countries are ‘particularly vulnerable’.

Among them are nations in the Caribbean and Oceania, as well as in northern and eastern Europe.

The researchers, from Michigan State University, University of California, and the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, are calling on exporters and importers to ‘urgently’ undertake cross-sectoral actions to reduce health impacts association with meat trade.

Spotlight on red and processed meat

The influence of meat trade, in terms of environmental sustainability and diet-related NCDs – including colorectal cancer, diabetes milletus, and coronary heart disease – has previously been researched.

In a 2020 study published in Scientific Reports, ​Dr Min Gon Chung from Michigan State University and UCLA concluded that the dynamics of global meat trade networks increase interdependencies between sending countries and receiving countries, placing stress on both human and natural systems across the world.

“For example, meat production for export can result in land use change and biodiversity loss,” ​Dr Chung wrote.

“Likewise, diets high in meat acquired through trade are positively associated with rates of diet-related, non-communicable diseases worldwide.”

In this latest study, published in BMJ Global Health​, the researchers took their research a step further, asking: What is the impact of red and processed meat trade on diet-related NCDs? And which countries are particularly vulnerable to diet-related NCDs due to red and processed meat trade?

The researchers selected 14 red meat and six processed meat items – including cow, sheep, goat, horse, rabbit and game meat products, as well as a variety of sausage, bacon and ham products –  and investigated bilateral meat trade flows across 154 countries between the years 1993 and 2018.

The team then integrated health data and information on red and process meat trade to quantify the country-specific burden of diet-related NCDs attributable to the meat trade.

Which European countries are most vulnerable?

Findings revealed that not only has global increases in red and processed meat trade contributed to the ‘abrupt increase’ of diet-related NCDs, but that this burden had large geographical variations amongst countries.

In Europe, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Czechia’s age-standardized death and DALY (disability-adjusted life years) rates ‘rapidly increased’ due to red and processed meat trade, the researchers noted.

“Since the world has begun to pursue sustainable diets for both human health and environmental sustainability, various guidelines consistently recommend a diet with fewer animal-based foods and more plant-based ones,” ​Dr Chung told FoodNavigator.

“However, this study showed global increases in red and processed meat trade contributed to the abrupt increase of diet-related NCDs, particularly across northern and eastern European countries and island countries in the Caribbean and Oceania.”

Addressing the ‘spillover impacts’ of meat trade

Although many dietary guidelines have been suggested for both human health and environmental sustainability across the globe, the lead researcher noted that few international initiatives and national guidelines for sustainable diets ‘explicitly address the spillover impacts’ of meat trade across countries.

Thus, Dr Chung continued, introducing sectoral policies – ranging from health to production and trade – towards less dependence on red and processed meat imports is urgently needed to reduce diet-related NCD incidence and mortality in these vulnerable countries.

“For instance, since regional trade agreements of the World Trade Organization (WTO) accelerate red and processed meat flows among countries, the WTO should strengthen collaborations with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) (e.g. the Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement) for the health agenda of trade agreement.”

In addition to international trade policies, the researcher suggested national and regional policies should address health issues from diet-related NCDs via red and processed meat trade.

“The EU, which accounts for a half of global meat trade, is preparing to charge carbon border taxes on imported goods based on the greenhouse gas emissions released during the process of their production.

“The carbon border taxes on meat products would be applied for future meat trade policies to achieve sustainable diets toward less red and processed meat consumption.”

Limitations

Dr Chung noted a limitation in the study, in that many countries import and process red meat items for export. Therefore the study’s findings may overestimate diet-related NCD risks via trade in major re-exporting countries, such as the Netherlands and Singapore.

Re-exports in these two countries accounted for over 50% of their merchandise exports. In these re-exporting countries, meat processing companies processed exported red meat and imported them to other countries.

Source: BMJ Global Health
‘Global red and processed meat trade and non-communicable diseases’
Published online 15 November 2021
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjgh-2021-006394
Authors: Min Gon Chung, Yingjie Li, and Jianguo Liu.

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