by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Meat

Nov 2 2015

WHO clarifies meat-and-cancer report

The World Health Organization has issued a statement of clarification of the significance of its International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) report on the increased risk for colorectal cancer from eating processed and red meat (see my post on this).

The latest IARC review does not ask people to stop eating processed meats but indicates that reducing consumption of these products can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.

Got that?

The New York Times explains the meaning of this increased risk.  To understand it, you need to know the risk of colorectal cancer among people who never eat processed or red meat.

The main problem with the public health messages put out by the W.H.O. is that the agency did a poor job of explaining what its risk-ranking system really means…it’s based only on the strength of the overall research, not on the actual danger of a specific product…Even the most strident anti-meat crusader knows that eating bacon is not as risky as smoking or asbestos exposure. Smoking raises a person’s lifetime risk of developing lung cancer by a staggering 2,500 percent. Meanwhile, two daily strips of bacon, based on the associations identified by the W.H.O., would translate to about a 6 percent lifetime risk for colon cancer, up from the 5 percent risk for people who don’t enjoy bacon or other processed meats.

My interpretation: Can processed and red meats be included in healthful diets?  Yes, of course.  But for many reasons, people and the planet would be healthier if these foods were consumed in smaller portions, less often.

Oct 27 2015

Some comments on the meat-is-carcinogenic report

Yesterday, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued a warning about the carcinogenic potential of processed and red meat.  This, as you might expect, caused a media flurry.  CNN News asked me for a written comment.  They titled it “The other benefit to eating less red meat.”  Here’s what I wrote:

The just-released report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer judging processed meat as clearly carcinogenic and red meat as probably carcinogenic has caused consternation among meat producers and consumers.

Meat producers do not like the “eat less meat” message. Consumers do not want to give up their bacon and hamburgers — delicious and also icons of the American way of life.

But these judgments should come as no surprise to anyone. Eating less processed and red meat has been accepted dietary advice since Ancel and Margaret Keys wrote their diet book for heart disease prevention, “Eat Well and Stay Well,” in 1959. Their advice: “restrict saturated fats, the fats in beef, pork, lamb, sausages …” They aimed this advice at reducing saturated fat to prevent heart disease. Federal committees and agencies have continued issuing such heart-disease advice to the present day.

Cancer entered the picture in the 1970s, when scientists began to link red meat — beef, pork, lamb — to the risk of cancers of the colon and rectum. Even after several decades of research, they had a hard time deciding whether the culprit in meat was fat, saturated fat, protein, carcinogens induced when meat is cooked to high temperatures or some other component.

In the mid-1990s, dietary guidelines committees advised eating lean meats and limiting intake of processed meats, still because of their high fat content. By the late 1990s, cancer experts said that red meat “probably” increases the risk of colorectal cancers, and “possibly” increases the risk of cancers of the pancreas, breast, prostate and kidney. The IARC report, based on more recent evidence, makes even stronger recommendations and favors carcinogens as the causative factors.

To put this in context: For decades, the meat industry’s big public relations problem has been that vegetarians are demonstrably healthier than meat eaters. People who do not eat red meat havemuch less of a chance of developing heart disease and bowel cancers than the average American.

More recently, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) found diets “higher in red/processed meats…” to be associated with a greater risk of colorectal cancer, and it recommended dietary patterns and low in red and/or processed meats, but higher in vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, lean meats/seafood and low-fat dairy — largely, but not necessarily exclusively, plant-based.

This is good advice for anyone.

Eating less red and processed meats has two benefits: a reduced risk for certain forms of cancer,and a reduced effect on climate change.

The DGAC deemed eating less red meat to be exceptionally beneficial to the environment as well as to human health. The IARC report strengthens the health component of the recommendation. The secretaries of USDA and Health and Human Services, however, have refused to allow environmental concerns to be considered in the 2015 dietary guidelines.

I mention the dispute over environmental “sustainability” in the dietary guidelines because largely plant-based diets are appropriate for all kinds of health concerns — obesity, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and now, especially, colorectal cancer — as well as environmental concerns.

By eating less red and processed meats, you promote both your own health and that of the planet.

At issue then is how much red and processed meat is compatible with good health. The IARC commission ducked that question, although it cites evidence that as little as 100 grams (a quarter pound) of red meat a day, and half that much of processed meats, increases cancer risk by 15% to 20%.

Will an occasional hamburger or piece of bacon raise your risk that much? I don’t think so. But the evidence reviewed by IARC strongly suggests that if you do eat meat, eat less when you do, don’t eat meat every day, save processed meats for rare treats and be sure to eat plenty of vegetables.

Fortunately, this advice leaves plenty of room for delicious meals — just with meat taking up much less room on the plate.

Other comments

Feb 9 2015

Red meat politics

I was interested to read Clare Foran’s piece in The National Journal on The Political Battle Over Red Meat.   It nicely summarizes the lobbying to stop the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee from saying that diets would be healthier and more sustainable if they included less red meat.

Her piece includes this illustration of why the meat industry objects to such ideas.


Since 2000, the meat industry has been relatively quiet over the Dietary Guidelines, mainly because—as I discussed in Food Politics—this industry had won most of the political battles.

The 2000 Dietary Guidelines recommended 2-3 servings a day of 2-3 ounces of meat for a total of 4-9 ounces a day—an increase over previous recommendations.

But then:

  • The 2005 Guidelines folded meat in with other sources of protein: “When selecting and preparing meat, poultry, dry beans, and milk or milk products, make choices that are lean, low-fat, or fat-free.”
  • The 2010 Guidelines said “Choose a variety of protein foods, which include seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.”

If current trends in Guidelines continue, the meat recommendation might disappear entirely.

Meat industry lobbyists want to make sure meat maintains its historic place in the center of American plates.

What will the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee say?  Its report is due out soon.  Stay tuned.

Oct 17 2014

This week’s book: Defending Beef

Nicolette Hahn Niman.  Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production.  Chelsea Green, 2014.

The subtitle says it all: “The Manifesto of an Environmental Lawyer and Vegetarian Turned Cattle Rancher.”


Really.  She’s not kidding.

I did a blurb for this one:

Issues related to the long-term health effects of red meat, saturated fat, sugar, and grains are complex and I see the jury as still out on many of them.  While waiting for the science to be resolved, Hahn Niman’s book is well worth reading for its forceful defense of the role of ruminant animals in sustainable food systems.

As this might suggest, I have a more cautious interpretation of the science she summarizes, but there are plenty of reasons why eating meat can help improve human nutrition, especially when the animals are raised as humanely and sustainably as possible, which the Nimans most definitely do on their beautiful Bolinas ranch.

Vegetarians: does she convince you?

Let the debates begin.

Aug 6 2014

Country-of-Origin-Labeling (COOL) for meat: Yes!

You might think that knowing where meat comes from would be useful to know, but big chunks of the meat industry think otherwise.  They have been fighting Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) for more than a decade, and the fight isn’t over yet.

In the latest skirmish, the US Court of Appeals for DC has decided that the USDA can implement its 2013 rules requiring country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for meat and poultry products, something it has been trying to do for a long time.

COOL laws mandate that meat products be labeled to tell where the food animals were born, raised and slaughtered, like “”born in Mexico, raised and slaughtered in the United States” or “born, raised and slaughtered in the United States.”

The judges said COOL does not violate the First Amendment—the principal argument used by meat industry groups to challenge the labeling law.

The American Meat Institute (AMI) says the ruling is disappointing.

Let’s leave aside the question of the meat industry’s invocation of First Amendment challenges to achieve what it can’t get any other way.  Fortunately, this ploy did not work this time.

But the easiest way to understand what this absurd business is about is to take the events chronologically.

This history, to say the least, is “convoluted.”

I went back to see what I had written about COOL in my 2006 book, What to Eat.

In 2002, Congress passed a law requiring Country of Origin Labeling (the apt acronym is COOL) that was to take effect in 2004.  Later, under pressure from food industries, Congress postponed the deadline until 2005 for fish, but until 2006 and, later, 2008 for other foods…In America, food industry opposition to COOL is just about universal.   The industry complains that tracking the origin of foods is difficult, but also would prefer that you not know how far food has traveled before it gets to you.   The Grocery Manufacturers of America, an especially vigilant trade advocacy group, called the 2002 bill “a nasty, snarly beast of a bill,” but even stronger opposition came from the meat industry.   Its lobbyists argued that COOL would be “extraordinarily costly with no discernible benefit,” but their real objection was that meat producers would have to track where animals and products come from—another sensible idea that they have long resisted…the industry wants COOL to be voluntary–so they can voluntarily decline to put COOL labels on their products.

In 2009, Canada and Mexico challenged COOL at the World Trade Organization (WTO), arguing that COOL was a trade barrier in disguise that would hurt the meat industry on both sides of the border.  The WTO issued a ruling in 2011 so ambiguous that both Canada and the U.S. said it favored their positions.

Canada and Mexico asked the WTO for another review.  The WTO has apparently rendered its decision but has not announced it publicly.  Politico Pro speculates that “the ruling does not bode well for USDA.”

Why COOL is a good thing is evident from  a case in Canada.   Officials of an Ontario greenhouse face criminal fraud charges for allegedly selling fresh vegetables from Mexico to Canadian retailers and representing them as Canadian produce.

I like knowing where my food comes from, don’t you?  And these days, meat especially.


May 30 2013

Chinese buy Smithfield: What about food safety, the environment, community health, animal welfare, worker rights?

I first heard about the impending of Smithfield (the gigantic ham-and-pork company) to the Chinese company, Shuanghui International Holdings, from

The acquisition positions Smithfield to expand its offerings in China through Shuanghui’s distribution network. Shuanghui will acquire all of Smithfield’s outstanding shares for $34 per share in cash, which is a 31 percent premium…Smithfield’s stock price rose nearly 28 percent to $33.20…Smithfield’s common stock will no longer be publicly traded, and the company will become a wholly owned independent subsidiary of Shuanghui. also reported a statement from the CEO of Shuanghui: 

We are excited about this…Together, [Shuanghui and Smithfield Foods] can be a global leader in animal protein…We are No. 1 in China; Smithfield is No. 1 in the US…Chinese consumers like American pork. US farmers want foreign markets for their pork. This will be a win-win for both countries.

Not exactly, says a e-mailed news release from the Waterkeeper Alliance:

This deal with the Shuanghui – a company with a very recent history of producing tainted food – raises the specter that Americans will lose more control of their food supply, be exposed to tainted food and be left with even more devastated farming communities and drinking water supplies as a result of increased industrialized meat production.

The New York Times put this sale on the front page and Stephanie Strom has an even longer piece on it in the business section.   The Washington Post also had plenty to say.

Smithfield, you may recall, is a company famous for factory farms, pollution, and truly appalling labor practices documented, in among many other places, the movie, Food, Inc.

In 2009, I commented on a previous attempt by Smithfield to sell out to a Chinese company.

Let’s not be too xenophobic about China. China already owns vast amounts of American real estate, holds vast amounts of American debt, and produces vast amounts of the food we eat–globalization in all its glory. We can no longer survive without China so we better figure out quickly how to make this marriage work.

We also better figure out how to make our food production system more sustainable and less harmful to farm animals, the environment, farm workers, and consumers. I was a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released its report last April. Our report fully documented how CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) are not nice to animals; pollute air, soil, and water; turn communities into garbage dumps; and promote transmission of nasty—and often antibiotic resistant–microbial diseases to farm workers, community residents, and everyone else.

One major finding of the Pew Commission was that laws protecting communities and the environment currently exist; they just aren’t enforced.  Too bad for anyone living near an industrial pig farm.

This deal stinks?

Additions, May 31: Reuters discusses the ractopamine issue, said to be key to understanding this deal.  The Chinese do not allow use of ractopamine as a growth promoter, but the U.S. does.  Once Smithfield started phasing out its use, the deal became possible.

Ractopamine is a beta-agonist. Initially developed to treat asthma in humans, ractopamine was found to be extremely effective at changing the metabolism of an animal, so that the animal would quickly and cost-effectively add sought-after muscle. The FDA approved the use of beta-agonists in pigs in 1999, for cattle in 2003 and for turkeys in 2008.

Helena Bottemiller writing on NBC News, also discusses this issue.

In March, Smithfield Inc., converted its Tar Heel, N.C. plant – the world’s largest pork processing facility – to slaughter only hogs that were raised without the use of ractopamine….the company’s product line will be 50 percent ractopamine-free as of June 1…Earlier this year, China and Russia demanded that all American meat exports be certified ractopamine-free. The U.S. government initially refused these certification demands, so Russia shut down its market to U.S. beef and pork in February. 

Addition, June 1: The New York Times writes that the Committee on Foreign Investment is about to undertake a national security review of the deal.  The big questions: Are Smithfield’s sales to the military secure?  Does it use special farming technology that could be transferred to China?  Will Shuanghui have the power to disrupt the U.S. food chain for pork?

Another addition, June 1: Apparently, Shuanghui has a history of findings of maggots, excessive bacteria and illegal additives.

Addition, June 4: Guess who owns half of Shuanghui, the company that wants to buy Smithfield: Goldman Sachs, among others.

Addition, June 5: The Wall Street Journal has this helpful graphic comparing the pork supply chains in China and the U.S. along with an excellent summary of the issues involved.


Mar 3 2013

Food Matters: Horsemeat scandal has eaters nervous

My monthly (first Sunday) column in the San Francisco Chronicle is now out, this time on the horsemeat scandal.

Q: It makes me sick to think that anyone could eat horsemeat. I don’t see how it could get into so many foods. Tell me how I can be sure I’m not eating it.

A: From this side of the Atlantic, the discovery of horsemeat in European hamburger and frozen dinners is the most riveting of scandals, replete with DNA technology, veterinary drugs, impossible-to-trace supply chains, smuggling, organized crime and outright fraud – not to mention the usual finger-pointing, cover-ups and protestations of shock that accompany food crises.

It is easy to explain how horsemeat got into vast amounts of hamburger and prepared meals. Horses are expensive to house and feed. Something has to be done with them when they are no longer wanted for farming, transport, racing or recreation. Horsemeat is edible, even delicious to some, and costs less than beef.


In Europe, the supply chains are exceptionally complicated, involving countless companies in more than 21 countries that process, transport or sell horses or horsemeat. The complexity makes it relatively easy to use horses to smuggle people or drugs, to label horsemeat as beef or to slip it into hamburger.

This would just be a matter of economic fraud if people didn’t care whether they ate horsemeat. But some Europeans, and most Americans, care very much. Like you, many people are appalled at the idea of eating any companion animal, let alone one symbolic of the rugged West.

Beyond cultural prohibitions, there are other reasons to avoid eating meat from horses not raised for food. Horses are routinely treated with veterinary drugs, legal and not. The drug traces found in European horsemeat may be too low to cause harm, but hardly seem likely to promote human health.

How long horsemeat has been passed off as European beef is unknown, as is why officials in Ireland decided to do DNA tests on supermarket meals in the first place. Whether done as routine testing or because of a tip, the results were startling. More than one-third of the tested “beef” samples contained horsemeat. Later tests in Great Britain identified “beef” meals made entirely from horsemeat.

This, as the Guardian’s writer Felicity Lawrence wrote in her guide to the scandal, can only be “industrial scale adulteration.”

The ensuing crisis forced many food companies and retailers to recall vast numbers of products, some intended for school meals. Nestlé (no relation) recalled pasta meals, but issued assurances that such products do not leave Europe and that none of its American products contains horsemeat-laden European beef.

What to make of this? In our food studies programs at New York University, we discuss food as a marker of cultural identity. People in other nations eat horsemeat. But like you, about 80 percent of Americans are appalled at the idea of eating horsemeat and oppose slaughtering horses for food or any other reason.

Yet horsemeat used to be eaten by Americans (and still is, by some), and even more so by pets. As Malden C. Nesheim and I wrote in our book about the pet food industry, “Feed Your Pet Right,” horse slaughterhouses created pet food companies to dispose of the meat. Through the 1940s, nearly all domestic horsemeat ended up in pet food.

Under pressure from horse lovers and animal welfare advocates, pet food companies replaced horsemeat with meat from other animals. Although horsemeat is permitted in pet food, and in theory could show up in rendered byproducts and meals, no American company would knowingly use it as an explicit item in an ingredient list. One can only imagine the uproar if it did.

Inspection issues

In 2007, Congress blocked the Department of Agriculture from inspecting slaughterhouses, effectively banning their use. As unintended consequences, the 140,000 or so unwanted horses each year had to be transported to slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico, and populations of neglected and abandoned horses increased. As a result, Congress permitted horse slaughterhouses to reopen last year, but the USDA has yet to authorize inspectors to work in them.

Could American beef be contaminated with horsemeat? We had a similar scandal in the 1950s. But if U.S. officials are testing hamburger for horsemeat DNA these days, they aren’t saying.

Because horsemeat is not produced here, it won’t be in butcher shops or supermarkets – unless the stores imported it or acquired contaminated products before the recalls, or unless the USDA assigns inspectors and allows horse slaughterhouses to reopen. Right now, without DNA testing, you can’t be sure.

You find this alarming? Short of going vegetarian, you have an option: Buy kosher meat. Jewish dietary laws prohibit horsemeat – horses are not ruminants and do not have cloven hooves – and kosher slaughterhouses are diligent about excluding forbidden animals.

This gives the horsemeat scandal one clear winner: Sales of kosher meat are booming.

Dec 12 2012

We eat what we buy. Both need improvement, says USDA.

USDA’s Economic Research Service has just issued a report, Assessing the Healthfulness of Consumers’ Grocery Purchases.

The bottom line?  Americans buy fewer fruits and vegetables than recommended but far more refined grains, sugars, and meat.

Here’s the summary diagram:

These results should not come as a surprise.  According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, the leading sources of calories in U.S. diets are:

  1. Grain-based desserts
  2. Breads
  3. Chicken and chicken dishes
  4. Sodas and other sugary beverages
  5. Pizza
  6. Alcoholic beverages
  7. Pasta and pasta dishes
  8. Tortillas, burritos, tacos
  9. Beef and beef dishes
  10. Dairy desserts
We eat what we buy (or are given).
That’s why congressional pressure to increase grains and meat in school lunches (see yesterday’s post) is questionable from a public health standpoint.
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