Targeting meat misses the point.

The leaked EU Beating Cancer Plan layed out that Brussels wants to crack down on red meat, in an effort to reduce cancer in Europe. The European Commission considered dropping marketing subsidies for red and processed meat because of health concerns, but later reverted as it faced backlash. We now know that the Commission was testing the waters.

While it’s generally good news when a government institution drops subsidies, the reasons for it do matter. The idea that red meat constitutes a public health risk is not a new one, nor are calls to tax or sometimes even restrict the consumption of it directly. 

The essential claim is that processed meat is a danger to public health, as it is associated with an increased risk of cancer. The “associated with” is quite an important keyword here, especially since it is being repeated so often. Everything you consume is essentially carcinogenic, and can therefore be linked to different cancers. The question is how dangerous it is exactly. 

A study by Dr. Marco Springmann and James Martin, both Fellows at the Oxford Martin School bases claims on is a 2011 meta-analysis from the Paris Institute of Technology for Life, Food and Environmental Sciences, which says this:

“The preventability of colorectal cancer in the United Kingdom through reduced consumption of red meat, increased fruit and vegetables, increased physical activity, limited alcohol consumption and weight control was estimated to be 31.5 per cent of colorectal cancer in men and 18.4 per cent in women.”

You may have noticed here that reducing red meat consumption is just one out of five key characteristics that people would have to follow in order to cut down their risk of colorectal cancer by up to a third (for men). If you narrow it down only to red meat consumption, you find a possible risk reduction in the UK of five per cent, provided the person was eating more than 80g of red meat per day. So yes, certain people can reduce their risk of certain cancers to a certain degree if they limit their consumption of red meat.

However, this is only true if people reduce their consumption of red meat without offsetting it with any other consumption.

It seems that there is an unfortunate disinterest of public health advocates for the occurrence of unintended consequences. If you limit access to one product, people are likely to find alternative routes to consume that product elsewhere. Take the example of Denmark’s fat tax, introduced in the same year that the Paris meta-analysis was published. In October 2011, Denmark’s leading coalition introduced a tax on fattening foods and beverages, such as butter, milk, cheese, meat, pizza, and oil, as long as they contain more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat. After fifteen months, the same parliamentary majority repealed the tax, as the Danes recognised the measure to be a failure.

The EU’s Beating Cancer Plan initial draft was ready to open a Pandora’s Box, and it only hastily closed again after an excess of criticism. Cutting subsidies is not bad in itself, but the belief that all red meat is a human health hazard can lead to deeper paternalistic policies that are not based on evidence. It is true that we should all consume products in moderation — including red meat — and should increase our willingness to exercise. That said, it is not for legislators to tilt the scales on our diets, and decide which products are good for us, and which are not. It is for consumers to plan and execute their diets, in a conscious way.

Originally published here.



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