Mark Twain once said, “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.” Whether it’s cancer-causing bacon, malignant milk or news that not eating meat is the only way to save the world, hardly a week goes by without some kind of food animal-related story hitting the headlines or filling our social media feed. But does every “doomsday meat” story you read always reflect the truth—or even present the real facts? And have you ever considered the wider impact these misleading stories have on farmers? While we are grateful these important subjects are being discussed in the mainstream, painting a complex subject in broad brushstrokes can sometimes do more harm than good.
In an effort to set the record straight—or at least to encourage people to look beyond the immediate headline—here is our list of the Top 5 Misleading Food Stories for 2015. Enjoy!
#5 – Parkinson’s Disease Threat from Milk
“Drinking Milk Is Linked to Parkinson’s Disease,” warned Times Online. But what the headline should have said is that “Ingesting Organochlorine Pesticides Might Trigger Parkinson’s Disease.” A group of Japanese researchers have identified a possible link between the long-term, historical consumption of milk accidentally contaminated with an organochlorine pesticide (which, by the way, is no longer used in the U.S.) and a possible increased risk of triggering changes in the brain associated with Parkinson’s disease. The article even goes on to say “The data certainly don’t mean that anyone who drinks several cups of milk a day is putting themselves at risk of developing Parkinson’s,” and that we all need to consider “how chemicals in the environment might be affecting our health.” Sound advice, we agree… but somewhat different than the sensationalist, anti-milk headline!
#4 – “Antibiotic-Free” Meat is the Answer
“5 Reasons to Choose Antibiotic-Free Meat”, advises the Eco-Novice website. Of course, it’s not the only one: Numerous online advocates followed the lead of certain not-for-profits in campaigning for “antibiotic-free” labels over recent years in an effort to force the meat industry to stop using antibiotics. And industry has responded, with numerous players—including McDonald’s and Subway—all trumpeting antibiotic initiatives in 2015. With the link between antibiotic abuse in food animals and antibiotic-resistant bacteria beyond doubt, you might think that choosing “antibiotic-free” labelled products will change farming. But it won’t. You’re simply paying more for the same intensively farmed product, supplied by the likes of Tyson or Perdue, with all the same welfare and environmental problems. And if you think we’re going to see a dramatic reduction in antibiotic use anytime soon, think again: The meat industry is perfectly happy to sell more lucrative “antibiotic-free” labelled products to the 5% who can afford them, while around 95% of meat is still produced using routine antibiotics (and increasingly destined for export). That’s probably why the U.S. government’s latest data reveal that food animal antibiotic sales increased by 3% last year (and up 23% from 2009). Banning antibiotics on a minority of farms isn’t the answer. Antibiotics are an important tool for treating illness in humans and animals, but they must only ever be used as a last resort—never to prop up industrial confinement food animal systems. What we urgently need is robust regulation to ensure antibiotics are used responsibly on every U.S. farm. And with news that Chinese scientists have linked the discovery of bacteria resistant to the last fully functional class of antibiotics to antibiotic abuse on industrial farms, it’s more urgent than ever.
#3 – “Rare Meat Could Kill”
Sticking with the antibiotic theme, in early December the front page of The Sun newspaper warned UK readers that “Rare Meat Could Kill.” But the headline should have read: “Industrial Food Animal Systems Breed Dangerous Bacteria.” Because it’s not meat per se that presents the risk: It is the intensive livestock systems that are incubating and then contaminating our food and environment with antibiotic-resistant, food-poisoning “superbugs.” Scientists say about 1 in 5 resistant infections are caused by germs from food and animals, and the misuse of antibiotics in intensive livestock farming is a key factor. The industry’s stock response is: “If people handle meat properly and cook it thoroughly, what do a few antibiotic-resistant pathogens matter?” Of course, good food hygiene is important when handling raw meat. But accidents happen. In the past if you did accidentally catch a food poisoning bug, a quick course of antibiotics would make you better. But today a food poisoning accident may lead to serious illness that’s resistant to multiple antibiotics. My point is this: Safe food handling instructions should never be used as an excuse for the industrial meat industry to misuse vital antibiotics in ways that actively encourage antibiotic-resistance, nor to absolve itself of responsibility for any illnesses or deaths that result. We don’t have to accept “superbugs” as the norm: Research (see here and here) shows that the risk of drug-resistant bacterial contamination is much lower in food from farming systems that raise animals outdoors on pasture and where antibiotics are only used as a last resort to treat actual sickness. Shouldn’t we all be able to enjoy meat, cooked how we like it, without fear of life-threatening drug-resistant food poisoning?
#2 – “Vegetables Are More Environmentally Friendly Than Meat”
The unquestioned assumption that vegetables are always the more environmentally friendly food choice—and that meat is always bad for the environment—featured regularly throughout 2015. Headlines like “A Meat Free Diet Can Help Save the Environment, Says Arnold Schwarzenegger”; “To Avoid Global Warming, Stop Eating Meat and Cheese”; “Fight Climate Change by Going Vegan”; or “How many more reasons do we need until we stop eating meat?” did a pretty good job of convincing some environmentally concerned consumers to stop eating meat and adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet. Of course, the reality is far more nuanced. When it comes to environmental impact, not all meat is bad and not all fruit and vegetables are good, as recent research points out. But complex messages don’t make for simple, sexy and polarizing headlines. Leading climate scientists generally agree that we have no option but to reduce our excessive intake of unsustainable, industrially raised, grainfed meat. But they also generally agree that well-managed, pasture-based ruminant (cattle and sheep) systems have a key role to play in both mitigating climate change through carbon sequestration and utilizing otherwise marginal grasslands to produce high-quality, protein-rich food. Yet this is rarely—if ever—presented in the “no meat” news. We urgently need a vigorous debate on what sustainable agriculture really means, taking into account issues like carbon sequestration, water use and biodiversity. But in the meantime we mustn’t throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater or threaten farmers’ livelihoods for the sake of a catchy headline.
#1 – “Bacon and Sausages Give You Cancer”
Arguably the most misleading—and perhaps most damaging—of meat-related headlines this year was news that bacon, sausages and similar processed meats “cause cancer.” Following the release of a World Health Organization report that classified ham and sausages in the ominous-sounding “group one” of carcinogens (which includes formaldehyde, gamma radiation and cigarettes), the news media was awash with frightening headlines. “Hot dogs, bacon and other processed meats cause cancer, World Health Organization declares,” warned the Washington Post. PBS Newshour tweeted “Bacon, hot dogs and processed meats cause cancer/are as dangerous as smoking, says @WHO.” “Bad Day For Bacon: Processed Meats Cause Cancer, WHO Says,” stated NPR. “Hot dogs, bacon, processed meats linked to cancer,” claimed USA Today. The list goes on. As usual, the reality behind the headlines was somewhat different. Sarah Zang of Wired offered perhaps the best summary of the real risks: “The scientific evidence linking both processed meat and tobacco to certain types of cancer is strong. In that sense, both are carcinogens. But smoking increases your relative risk of lung cancer by 2,500%; eating two slices of bacon a day increases your relative risk for colorectal cancer by 18%. Given the frequency of colorectal cancer, that means your risk of getting colorectal cancer over your life goes from about 5% to 6%.” Even the WHO itself released a clarification just 3 days after their original announcement, stating their report “does not ask people to stop eating processed meats but indicates that reducing consumption of these products can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.” Yet the damage was already done: In the two weeks after the WHO’s classification of processed meat as carcinogenic to humans, UK sales of sausage and bacon plummeted by 14-18%, wiping out over £3 million ($4.5 million) sales in the UK alone.
Our food choices have an enormous impact on things like the environment or our health. Choosing the right foods is one of the most important and yet easiest everyday activities you can take to minimize greenhouse gas emissions, for example. And we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves and influence positive change in the marketplace. But newspapers, journalists and other educators have an equal responsibility to provide information truthfully and objectively. Misleading food-related headlines or stories can (and do) result in many hundreds—if not many hundreds of thousands—of people wrongly believing that certain foods might give them cancer or cause illness, or that all beef farmers are actively destroying the planet. So when CNN ran the sensationalist headline claiming that “Beef is the New SUV” in terms of greenhouse gas emissions—and yet failed to point out that well-managed grassfed beef cattle could actually play a unique role in helping to mitigate climate change—it’s easy to see why those farmers who are breaking their backs to produce our food in a truly sustainable way might feel like reaching for their pitchforks…
Have a safe, peaceful and sustainable holiday.
A Greener World
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