WHO report on meat – Should Schools And Hospitals Opt-Out Of Carcinogenic Products? 

There is no more compelling evidence than message-boards this week to demonstrate that many New Zealanders like eating meat. We don’t like being told what to do and we like our freedom of choice! But we can’t claim to be truly free to make informed decisions unless we are willing to meaningfully engage in discussions on the healthiness of meat beyond personal preference. In a country where 100 Kiwis die of bowel cancer each month (more than prostate or breast cancer combined) most of us would be shocked to discover the little-known fact that New Zealand has the highest rate of bowel cancer and death in the developed worldAccording to Bowel Cancer New Zealand “Bowel cancer is New Zealand’s cancer” and our most common cancer irrespective of gender. 3000 kiwis are diagnosed every year and our attitudes toward meat-eating likely play a significant role in these negative outcomes.

The good-old Kiwi barbecue gives most of us strong, nostalgic beach-time feelings, but we ought to pay attention to the World Health Organisation recommendations because those findings are more relevant to us than people in almost all other countries. When it comes to the health of our kids we need to deal with this information soberly; it’s no joke. I can’t help but imagine the outcry if the causes for breast cancer were treated with such widespread flippancy.

This week – as you are no doubt aware – the World Health Organisation informed us that processed meat is carcinogenic. This isn’t new information, it’s been long known that processed meats such as sausages and bacon are indeed carcinogenic – few have debated this – not even the meat producers in New Zealand, nor our own Cancer Society. This time the WHO also included red meat as ‘likely carcinogenic’ which if you take your time with the science you’ll find it’s really compelling – and complex! There is disagreement but the collaborative group reviewing the literature took their time and do have a foundation to make this claim. If you’re interested in reading more you can check out the BBC commentary written by Cochrane on the issue, or you can read the media release from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) or investigate the specific studies the IARC reviewed – namely studies with “controlled designs, large sample sizes, and/or used quantitative dietary data culled from questionnaires”. But while it’s generally agreed that the exact mechanisms aren’t known, this doesn’t make the WHO’s conclusion an example of junk science. It’s not intellectually or socially responsible for outraged members of the public, or lobby groups, to make that claim. It’s interesting that despite claims made by biased lobbyists who like to dominate public opinions, PR people paid by the meat industry to discredit the WHO or members of the public who love meat, the science itself is okay.

There are of course plenty of funded pro-meat studies carried out by meat lobbyists in New Zealand and overseas dedicated to the sole purpose of discrediting the work of any group that dare bring up the issue of the negative impacts of meat eating. Lobby groups across the world openly talk about “fighting” these  findings, but to what end? To make money? Yet one thing about the WHO that is beneficial to New Zealanders (and indeed world health) is that it’s an important part of their charter to remain an independent body and able to make independent calls that aren’t influenced by financial gain and motivated lobbyists; their single motivation is to improve global health. Even the most meat-loving person in the world has to agree that it’s not necessarily an unbiased source when Beef & Lamb come out saying there is “little evidence” for an association between meat fats and cancer.  That isn’t ethical of them and we all know it. I mean, of course they would say that! And there is no question that meat and dairy production are of key importance to our economy. It’s also not surprising that our government which directly benefits from income created by these primary industries shows little interest in action. But what we are missing out on when we allow them to dominate the narrative is we actually do have a right to know what is harmful, how harmful it is and what we ought and ought not do for family health, and that information should be responsibly disseminated through public health initiatives to properly inform us, not swept under the rug and laughed at (I’m looking at you too, Newsmedia). We have a right to transparency and reviews that put people (not profits) first. Given this it’s not good that Beef & Lamb or even the Ministry of Health nutritional guidelines currently recommend products without including balanced appraisals that clearly state potential risks. It’s not OK to only include half of the story in our most referenced and important public literature on diet. It’s OK to ask for labels on these products that clearly inform us of the risks. If you agree that we have a right to make our own informed decisions, then what is the harm? The MoH have work to do, that’s for sure.

In regards to meat here are the facts. Processed meat is carcinogenic but not as carcinogenic as smoking. Sunlight is also carcinogenic and as the Cancer Society states there are also benefits to sunlight exposure. Food though, is kind of different to sunlight so that argument seems disingenuous coming from them. Some sun is important for health, but ‘some processed meat’ isn’t important for health and it’s questionable if ‘some red meat’ is important for health when there are so many nutritious alternatives without any cancer risk. The truth is some people like to eat meat, but that doesn’t make it ‘important for health’ or ‘necessary’. It’s quite interesting that a hefty bulk of advertising content in New Zealand has historically made the false claim that meat, and even dairy, are “vital” for health when this is not a fact. Meat and dairy profiteers are routinely caught out making this claim which is simply untrue. In fact studies are now seeming to indicate that the recommendation for dairy too has been vastly over stated and there are serious medical risks to consuming so much calcium on a daily basis, though few groups have chosen to relay that information. It’s quite shocking to hear Kiwis talk about cancer as though it’s just an inevitable fact of life when these guidelines are specifically formulated with the express intention of reducing the frequency of preventable cancers. As New Zealanders we should be particularly grateful to the WHO because of how this specifically concerns us. As adults we have choices and as long as people let us have access to truthful and important information we can make our own decisions. Without that free flow of honest public health information we can’t make informed decisions, and in this hush-it-down-for-money environment kids especially can’t.

Lots of parents will deny that there is any problem with any meat product as we have seen over the last few days on the internet. Even our own telly stations will make a joke about the issue and laugh about consuming 4x the safe amount of this food with little regard for how ridicule impacts upon the serious issue of bowel cancer. And this is where as a community we do have to ask, in fact demand, that the health of our children is supported. We all try to do the best by our kids but it’s not always easy and it is the role of community organisations to at least make basic decisions to ensure children are safe. Even if the government doesn’t get involved it’s a simple and important act for schools to opt-out of offering carcinogenic food to children when there are a wide variety of options available that are not in any way dangerous to health. I would similarly argue that it’s important kids aren’t offered/given sugar in the same way. The issue is that kids eat what the adults they trust offer and if they’re hooked on bad foods they’ll almost exclusively choose to consume them. If parents keep feeding kids processed meat supposedly “in moderation” (which we really need to be honest – the moderation side isn’t happening in homes or schools) when there are legitimate alternatives available that don’t cause cancer that’s kind of like saying kids should have cigarettes “in moderation”.  And that analogy is indeed sound because it really doesn’t matter if it processed meats are less carcinogenic, processed meats are still significantly carcinogenic and massively over-consumed in this country that has terrible, terrible bowel cancer stats. There are no needs fulfilled by processed meat that can’t be fulfilled in other ways and this brings me to another dimension to this discussion, the cumulative effect of what is eaten at home and at school combined.

It’s simple. Removing these products from hospitals and schools will not detrimentally effect the overall economy and that’s a spurious claim. They will not detriment children or patients in any way, there are many delicious, nutritious foods that aren’t carcinogens. There are plenty of New Zealand made brands and imported brands of saussies for sausage sizzles that are not made out of processed or red meat. There will only be benefits and that includes reducing the total load that some kids may have on their bodies when they’re getting carcinogens at school and at home. And this is why I feel the Cancer Society have failed us. They know that saussies and bacon are regularly over-consumed meats, they also run sausage sizzles to gain funds. The Cancer Society are not advocating to protect the public health with an honest appraisal of the scale of the issue in New Zealand as they should. Sure, this discussion is mostly about the elephant in the room that Beef & Lamb and the pork producing federation would never, ever admit, that our values – our good ol’ kiwi values which have been manufactured and nudged along by crafty advertisers – and our love for meat has lined their pockets and likely resulted the third highest rates of bowel cancer in the OECD, but the issue extends beyond cancer alone. Because the truth is it’s not just bowel cancer that’s the issue, obesity is at epidemic levels and these choices place a great strain on the public healthcare system and affect lives. Ask anyone who’s lost family members to such cancers, it’s no nice thing.

Take a minute to consider this: a healthy society cares about kids and adults. And medical facilities have an  moral obligation to acknowledge the cultural issues at play and ensure the foods they’re offering patients are SAFE foods, especially to adults and children in heart wards, adults and kids with diabetes and most importantly those with cancer, but in all honestly, to all of those under their care. Their primary function is to support good heath and giving cancer-causing foods to patients is simply against their basic purpose.

It’s genuinely alarming when private-interest groups like Beef & Lamb – who are obviously biased, reject all of the independent science, and are also rich enough to manufacture their own studies – get to take pride of place and visit schools to promote their products as ‘healthy’ while pretending the negative impacts are untrue and it’s simply a case of “balance”. The “balance” message is failing, and that’s because they don’t want balance, they want to make money. It’s also disturbing to see them feed kids free processed meat burgers and dance around in costumes telling kids how great the stuff is without any intervention or independent critique from schools. A schools function is to teach facts and to foster independent, rational and reasoned thinkers; kids who know how to take care of their health. Children are vulnerable at that time and so these private corporate interest groups should not be permitted to do that.

We have a very neo-liberal, right-wing government right now who state that government shouldn’t be making decisions about what kids eat in schools – or at least that’s what they claim – that health decisions are up to parents, but by allowing financial interests to rule an open space that they facilitate with their hands-off approach and letting wealthy corporates like Beef & Lamb dominate the sphere (and the conversation) they are taking a specific stance, supporting a specific set of problematic values and indeed making a decision. And the decision is this, that health is a low priority where there’s money to be made.

So beyond the joke of ‘mmm, bacon’ let’s start to talk more about what’s really going on.

I get that it’s tasty to many people, just as heaps of people like smoking ciggies. I didn’t stop eating meat because I didn’t like the taste, I stopped for environmental reasons and for reasons of health; to reduce the cancer and diabetes risk to myself and my son, because like many New Zealanders we’re in a high risk ethnic group with stomach cancer, throat cancer, breast cancer and diabetes in our immediate family – and because I came to feel that animals have a right to not be enslaved and slaughtered by industry for private financial gain, especially not when the resultant products are non-essential and cause environmental and physical health problems. Beyond taste I genuinely believe we have a responsibility to think about children and make basic, easy decisions that fortify their health for the future, and allow them to be adequately informed so that they can go on to protect the health of their kids too.

As a parent I make decisions for my own health that aren’t always the best, but I want to make sure the decisions I make for him are nothing but the best. Though I might add, in taking care of him I learn to take better care of myself, and someone once said, “Your children won’t treat themselves as you treat them, they’ll treat themselves as you treat yourself”, so I guess in that regard my respect, love and care for him is teaching me something too. I try to show him what’s best for him through living it and doing my best at being consistent. I am not perfect and I don’t think any parent is. I’m not a health guru. I have studied nutrition at University and I don’t get it right all the time. But I’m working on it, because he deserves it and genuinely, so do the other kids out there.

I would like to see a new wave of responsibility taken by hospitals, schools and healthcare providers and I think parents should push for schools to opt-in to provide a carcinogen free environment. I believe it is genuinely unethical of hospitals to simultaneously seek to heal people while feeding them carcinogens. Especially when there are plenty of healthful alternatives that also fulfill the requirement for good taste. I’d like to think I’m capable of thinking beyond what meat lobby groups and advertisers tell me, and I hope that schools do start to consider their place as public educators and become aware that they have a part to play in children’s health by -simply – removing carcinogenic menu items.

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