The finding that eating red meat is harmful, as first published in The Lancet medical journal in October 2020, is not reliable according to correspondence in the same journal last week.

The admission came in a letter published in The Lancet in response to concerns raised by a group of academics led by Prof Alice Stanton, Royal College of Surgeons Ireland.

Dr Christopher Murray, the lead author of the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) research group responsible for the findings on red meat, confirmed that based on updated methodology, deaths attributable to red meat will be reduced.


Commenting on the response to their letter Frédéric Leroy, one of the scientists that raised concerns, said: “Given this confirmation of errors in GBD 2019 related to red meat and given the impact of GBD publications on dietary policy worldwide, it’s in the public interest for Dr Murray and The Lancet to jointly retract the GBD 2019 Risk Factor’s paper.”

The Lancet referred the Irish Farmers Journal to the authors of the research regarding the question of retraction of the research.

At the time of going to press, no response was forthcoming from the GBD collaborators.

Significant U-turn

The letter marks a significant turnaround from the initial research that concluded that red meat intake is harmful.

Following the use of new assumptions in the 2019 research, a diet high in red meat was reported to be responsible for 896,000 deaths.

This was a 36-fold increase on 2017, which used earlier assumptions.

Essentially, in the space of two years, eating unprocessed red meat moved from being the least important of 21 dietary risk factors to the seventh leading dietary risk factor for ill health and death.

However, Dr Murray’s letter last week confirmed that deaths attributable to red meat will be reduced in forthcoming research based on revised methodology.

Indeed, he went further to confirm that based on the new methodology the strength of evidence between red meat and various outcomes is relatively weak.

He also confirmed there is a clear protective relationship between red meat intake and haemorrhagic stroke which will be reflected in the GBD 2020 findings.

Why is this research important?

It’s true that most ordinary consumers don’t read The Lancet and are not familiar with the detail of this research.

However, the Global Burden of Disease is a highly respected long-running study, the findings of which are used by policymakers and health systems across the world.

Widely referenced

This research has been widely referenced and has made its way into public policy in both the UK and EU. It is likely that the findings have made their way into the public consciousness.

It took 12 years after publishing for The Lancet to retract a paper that turned tens of thousands of parents around the world against the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine because of an implied link between vaccinations and autism.

The research was subsequently found to be incorrect.

Given the standing and importance of the Global Burden of Disease research, an early retraction would seem appropriate.