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The health impact of the global meat trade

The authors of a new study 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.

Jianguo "Jack" Liu, an EEB core faculty member in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and his colleagues write that the rapid increase in global trade in red and processed meat has complicated efforts to make human diets more healthy and sustainable. 

Red meat for sale
Exported beef, pork, lamb, and goat, as well as processed red meat, has environmental and health costs.

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.

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.

Specifically, they looked at deaths from colorectal cancer, type 2 diabetes, and ischemic heart disease, and the number of disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) Trusted Source for these conditions.

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.