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AHDB, the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers and the British Meat Processors Association have called on The Lancet to withdraw the data in question

Meat sector bodies have called on The Lancet to issue a retraction and publish an apology to livestock and meat businesses over the continued presence on the journal’s website of a controversial report linking meat consumption to increased mortality.

Letters outlining the concerns of AHDB, the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers and the British Meat Processors Association – over the reliability of the 2019 version of the Global Burden of Disease study – appeared in The Lancet’s latest edition, published last week.

The letters mark the latest stage in an ongoing dispute over the study’s claims, with The Grocer first reporting concerns over the veracity of the data back in November 2021.

Compiled by scientists at the University of Washington in the US, the GBD study was published in October 2020 and supported by a Lancet report in early 2021. It claimed global deaths from eating red meat rose from just 25,000 in 2017 to 896,000 in 2019 – representing a 36-fold (or 3,484%) increase in the threat to human health from eating meat in two years.

The ongoing presence of the report on The Lancet website and its use as a reference in a raft of global food policy documents have since prompted a lobbying campaign against the medical journal – which ultimately led to the publication of the letters last week.

In his letter, AHDB CEO Tim Rycroft noted how the same scientists which compiled the GBD data had produced a separate piece of work, titled the Burden of Proof Studies, which “scrutinised decades of research on red meat consumption and its links to various health outcomes with their findings, dispelling most of the concerns that have been previously raised in The Lancet”.

Scientists cast doubt on ‘dangerous’ implications of red meat health risks data in Global Burden of Disease study

The scientists found “weak evidence of association between unprocessed red meat consumption and colorectal cancer, breast cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and ischaemic heart disease”, Rycroft added, with the GBD collaborators also finding “no evidence of an association between unprocessed red meat and ischaemic stroke or haemorrhagic stroke” in the data, which was published in journal Nature Medicine last October.

Those concerns were echoed by AIMS chair John Thorley, who described the GBD data as “inaccurate and misleading”, before adding “an error of interpretation of data of this magnitude calls into question the validity of other datasets within the analysis, which – as we have seen in other areas of the meat industry – might well have been used incorrectly to misinform opinion on public health”.

Meanwhile, BMPA CEO Nick Allen said the publication of the data demonstrated a failure to “ensure that the correct due diligence was performed”, with the paper “not peer-reviewed”.

“Our message is simple. We believe 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,” Allen added.

“If a study is proven to be wrong, it should not be used and should be withdrawn from publication. By maintaining public access to disputed and incorrect information, The Lancet risks causing the unintended consequences of encouraging people to do something that could harm instead of help them because the wrong assumptions were used,” he pointed out.

“The science surrounding diet and health is developing rapidly and there is plenty of established evidence to show that meat, eaten in moderation, forms part of a balanced and healthy diet that supports human health,” he said.

“However, dietary advice has been somewhat hijacked by influential individuals and organisations who are often driven by other agendas and commercial interests that might not be as supportive to human health. We think this study in its current form has the potential to encourage this kind of misinformation to shape people’s diets in a detrimental way.”

Growing concerns over widely-used Global Burden of Disease meat data

In response, The Lancet also published a rebuttal to the complaints in its latest edition by the GBD authors, who denied the data was incorrect.

“This study is an iterative process focused on continuous improvement,” they stressed. “With each cycle, we strive to improve our methods, data, processes, transparency, and the scope and detail of our estimates.”

And the concerns of Allen, Rycroft and Thorley were largely dismissed as an “incorrect” interpretation of this process “as signifying the presence of errors”.

“The large increase in our estimates of mortality attributable to red meat intake that occurred between GBD 2017 and GBD 2019 was primarily driven by the inclusion of additional causes of death as outcomes of red meat consumption,” they added.

“GBD 2017 included only colorectal cancer and Type 2 diabetes, whereas we expanded the list of associated causes for GBD 2019 to also include breast cancer and four cardiovascular outcomes,” they said, while pointing to other factors around changes to “theoretical minimum risk exposure levels” that would also impact on the data.

“Forthcoming improvements in our estimates of mortality attributable to red meat consumption for GBD 2021,” would lead its estimates for mortality attributable to red meat to be lower, they said.

However, the scientists still expected them to “be an order of magnitude higher than the estimates for GBD 2017”.