The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) is the latest in a line of organisations that have challenged the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) 2020 findings on the consumption of red meat. The finding that eating red meat is harmful was first published in The Lancet medical journal in October 2020. The research finding has been widely referenced and has made its way into public policy in both the UK and EU, including the UK government's National Food Strategy and the Food Standards Agency’s latest five year strategy. It is likely that the findings have also made their way into the public consciousness.

BMPA’s challenges follows correspondence last month in The Lancet from the World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRF) and The Academy of Nutrition Sciences, which challenged the assumptions behind the finding on the health risks of red meat. Notwithstanding WCRF’s finding of a relationship between red and processed meat and colorectal cancer, they stated that they do not recommend complete avoidance of meat. They noted that red meat is an important source of several nutrients and removing it from the diet carries a risk of nutritional deficiency judged to outweigh future cancer risk.

Criticism from scientists mounts

A team of scientists, led by Prof Alice Stanton of Royal College of Surgeons Ireland, mounted the initial challenge to the GBD finding. They challenged the methodology used by GBD collaborators and the conclusions they were drawing about the links between dietary factors and diseases. Specifically the findings on red meat were seen as troublesome. Following the use of new assumptions in the 2019 GBD 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.

The lead author of the GBD research group that published the original paper already confirmed in March 2022 that the finding that red meat is harmful is not reliable. Dr Christopher Murray noted that based on updated methodology, deaths attributable to red meat will be reduced based on this forthcoming analysis. 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 that there is a clear protective relationship between red meat intake and haemorrhagic stroke, which will be reflected in the GBD 2020 findings. This has been welcomed by those challenging the data.

Calls to withdraw research findings

The BPMA has accused The Lancet of failing to ensure that due diligence was performed on this study. They note that it was not peer reviewed and did not adhere to standards required by The Lancet of such research.

“Our message is simple. We believe that we should keep studying the effects of food on our health, but we should only use evidence that meets the highest standards of scientific scrutiny and integrity on which to base advice to the public. If a study is proved to be wrong, it should not be used and should be withdrawn from publication” said the BMPA.

Given that the authors of the research have accepted the findings are inaccurate, it beggars belief that two years on from its publication it has not been retracted.