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The health impact of the global meat trade

A vendor hangs preserved sausages at a wet market on November 12, 2021, in Xi an, China.China News Eating red meat and processed meats, such as ham, bacon, and sausages, can increase the risk of bowel cancer.
These types of meat products also have associations with an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Researchers have now estimated the health impacts of the growing international trade in red and processed meat.
They argue that international trade contributes to the increased incidence of diet-related diseases by increasing the availability of these products.

Over the past 2 decades, the global trade in red and processed meat has more than doubled, from 10 million tonnes in 1993–1995 to 24.8 million tonnes in 2016–2018.

The authors of a new study

which appears in BMJ Global Health, point out that producing red meat for export has environmental costs in terms of lost habitats and biodiversity and harms consumers’ health.

The scientists write that the rapid increase in global trade in red and processed meat has complicated efforts to make human diets more healthy and sustainable.

This is because the trade increases consumption in countries that do not produce much red and processed meat for their own markets.

The researchers calculated the contribution of international trade in these types of meat to the health burdens of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

They estimate that over the past 2 decades, international trade in red and processed meat has contributed to a 75% increase in the global burden of these diseases.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified processed meat as a definite cause of cancer and red meat as a probable cause.

Processed meat includes products such as sausages, bacon, salami, and ham.

“If you’re eating a lot of meat on most days, it’s a good idea to think about cutting down,” said Amanda Finch, health information manager at Cancer Research UK.

“But the less you eat, the lower your risk, so cutting down is good for your health no matter how much you eat,” she told Medical News Today.

Research has also linked red and processed meat consumption to increased risks of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

The role of global trade

The scientists at the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI, estimated changes in health risks that were attributable to the global trade in red and processed meat.

They calculated the daily consumption of these types of meat in 154 countries per head of population, based on the quantities each country produced, imported, exported, and wasted.

The data on red meat was mostly for beef, pork, lamb, and goat.

The data for processed meat — mostly beef and pork — included products preserved by smoking, salting, curing, or artificial preservatives.

The scientists used information from the Global Burden of Disease project, which assesses the impact of particular risk factors for each country, to discover the health effects of meat consumption.

They used a statistical tool called a comparative risk assessment framework to estimate the contribution of red and processed meat imports to these deaths and DALYs in each country.

Deaths and disability

They report that increased consumption due to trade accounted for 10,898 deaths worldwide in 2016–2018. This was an increase of 74.6% from 1993–1995.

The global number of DALYs attributable to the worldwide meat trade increased by 89.9%, from 165,008 in 1993–1995 to 313,432 in 2016–2018.

This represents an increase from 4.9% to 9.7% of total global meat exports.

The authors explain that this was due to the reliance by high-income countries on imports to meet increased demand for meat due to rapid urbanization and income growth.

They conclude:

“[C]oordinated efforts between exporters and importers are crucial to adjust agricultural priorities from producing large amounts of red and processed meats for exports to healthy plant-based foods.”

“[A]lthough many dietary guidelines have been suggested for both human health and environmental sustainability across the globe, few international initiatives and national guidelines for sustainable diets explicitly address the spillover impacts of meat trade across countries,” said the lead author of the study, Min Gon Chung, Ph.D.

“Thus, introducing cross-sectoral policies (health, production, and trade) toward less dependence on red and processed meat imports is urgently needed to reduce diet-related [noncommunicable disease] incidence and mortality in these vulnerable countries,” he told MNT.

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Shortcomings of the study

The authors note some limitations of their analysis.

For example, the study only included 20 major red and processed meat products. The researchers say other items could cause additional health risks.

Their analysis also did not account for countries that import red meat in order to process and re-export it.

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Why is nutrition so hard to study?

Is dairy good or bad for health? Is cholesterol evil? Does red meat kill or cure? Is the ketogenic diet a godsend or a health hazard? Can the vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, or raw food diet extend disease-free life?

Nutrition is a maze. In this article, we ask why.
Nutrition is wrapped in multiple confusions. Why is it so hard to determine whether a food is good or bad for health?

In medical science, proving any theory is difficult. The science of nutrition is no different, but it also has some unique challenges. In this feature, we outline just some of these stumbling blocks.

Despite the many issues that nutrition scientists face, understanding which foods benefit or harm health is essential work.

Also, the public is growing increasingly interested in finding ways to boost health through diet. Obesity and diabetes are now highly prevalent, and both have nutritional risk factors. This has sharpened general interest further.

All areas of scientific research face the following issues to a greater or lesser degree, but because nutrition is so high on people’s agenda, the problems appear magnified.

A changing world

Although the water is muddy and difficult to traverse, there have been substantial victories in the field of nutrition research.

In all of these cases, there is a link between a particular compound and a specific condition. However, the picture is rarely so clear-cut.

The ‘perfect’ nutritional study

Alcohol and tobacco are banned for the duration of the study.

The participants must also exercise for the same amount of time each day; if some people exercised more, they might become healthier, regardless of their goji berry intake. This would skew the data.

Neither the researchers nor the participants are aware of who is receiving the goji berry smoothie; if the participants knew they were receiving a “superfood,” they might benefit from the placebo effect. This so-called double-blinding is vital when running clinical trials.

During the decade-long study, the scientists monitor the participants’ health intensively. This might involve running regular blood tests and medical imaging.

Of course, the astronomical cost of this type of study is the very first stumbling block. Also, ethics and good sense say that this is beyond impossible.

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