Conclusion

We are told to limit the amount of red and processed meat we eat – chicken is completely ignored. This is not good enough; the government should be encouraging people to replace meat with healthier plant-based protein. The WCRF and WHO have both issued clear warnings about meat and cancer; they have not minced their words! They say processed meats (including processed white meats made from chicken and turkey) do cause cancer and red meat probably does too.

There are some signs of change – small beginnings. In 2016, Public Health England’s new Eatwell Guide shifted the emphasis from meat as the main source of protein. “Meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein” was replaced with: “Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins”. The change in wording reflects a small but significant shift in emphasis from meat and dairy to plant foods. A move in keeping with the current research which recognises the harm meat and dairy do to our health and the environment.

Public Health England now says “Pulses such as beans, peas and lentils are good alternatives to meat because they’re lower in fat and higher in fibre and protein, too”. However, they also say: “Choose lean cuts of meat and mince and eat less red and processed meat like bacon, ham and sausages”. These guidelines need to be strengthened in light of the WCRF and WHO reports to say “cut down on all meat and avoid processed meat as it causes cancer”. Otherwise people will continue to buy chicken (thinking it is a healthy meat) along with bacon, ham and sausages.

UK meat consumption is relatively high compared to other countries, but has steadily declined since the 1970s. Consumption of carcase meat (joints or steaks) has fallen while that of non-carcase meat (chicken, turkey, sausages, pies and meat-based ready meals) has increased. However, despite the huge increase in chicken sales, taken together, total meat consumption in the UK has fallen by more than 10 per cent since 1974.

The meat-free market is thriving – worth £625 million in 2013. The number of vegans in the UK has risen by 360 per cent over the last decade with 542,000 now compared to 150,000 in 2006. It’s time the government gets on board with what people are working out for themselves – meat is unhealthy, we don’t need it and we don’t want it. 

Meat does not contain any nutrients that you can’t find in healthier foods. Most types of meat contain iron, zinc, selenium, phosphorus, choline and B vitamins. All these are widely available in healthier, plant foods. Meat contains little or no carbohydrate and no fibre, which lowers cholesterol and protects against bowel cancer and heart disease.

Meat contains cholesterol and saturated fat, linked to obesity and cardiovascular disease (CVD). The British Dietetic Association says that most people eat 20 per cent more saturated fat than the maximum recommended amount. Most comes from fatty cuts of meat, poultry (particularly chicken skin), sausages and pies as well as dairy products, cakes and biscuits. All reputable health organisations (including the WHO) recommend eating less saturated fat found in meat and dairy foods and more unsaturated fats found in avocados, nuts, seeds, plant-based oils and spreads.

The same is true for protein; most people eat 45-55 per cent more than they need. There is no advantage to eating more protein than you need, in fact it is harmful. If you consume enough calories in a varied vegan diet, it is very easy to achieve the desired level of protein. 

Vitamin B12 is often cited as a reason to eat meat. What most people don’t realise is that traditionally farmed animals would have got B12 from food eaten from the ground, contaminated with B12-producing bacteria (this is how our ancestors got theirs too in addition to the small amount of meat they ate). Intensive farming methods ensure that sanitised animal feed is free of B12, so animals need supplements too. You could cut out the middleman and take your own. B12 from fortified foods and supplements is also easier to absorb than B12 from meat which is bound to animal protein. In the US, all adults over 50 years (including meat-eaters) are advised to get B12 from fortified foods or supplements because of the high incidence of poor absorption from meat and dairy. Many vegans have a heads-up on B12 as they routinely include a supplement or fortified foods in their diet.

It’s a myth that you need meat to get iron, deficiency is no more common among vegetarians and vegans than meat-eaters. Iron deficiency affects large numbers of meat-eaters, so clearly it is not a vegetarian or vegan issue. The NDNS shows that being a meat-eater does not guarantee protection against deficiency. Young women are particularly vulnerable because of iron lost during menstruation. A good level of iron intake can be achieved from a varied vegan diet and combining iron-rich foods with vitamin C can significantly boost absorption. 

Too much iron can be harmful, activating molecules that switch on cancer genes and others linked to atherosclerosis and heart disease. Haem iron, from meat, can contribute to the formation of free radicals and N-nitroso compounds (NOCs) which can damage DNA and lead to cancer. Non-haem iron from plant foods offers all the benefits of iron without these risks. Meat processing (curing with nitrites) can also lead to the formation of NOCs in meat and haem iron in meat encourages NOC formation in the gut. A double whammy!

Cooking meat at high temperatures (pan-frying, grilling and barbecuing) can produce carcinogenic chemicals: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs). The main sources of PAHs are cooked and smoked meat and fish (notably barbecued meat) and tobacco smoke. BaP is the most abundant PAH in the diet. Chicken is the main source of HCAs in a typical Western diet and fried, roast and grilled chicken can contain particularly high amounts. PhIP is the most abundant HCA and high levels have been found in pan-fried, oven-grilled and barbecued chicken – much higher than in red meats. So much for chicken being the healthy option! Dripping and gravy made from it also contains high levels of HCAs. In parts of Yorkshire, dripping spread on bread is known as a ‘mucky fat’ sandwich!

Some sportspeople use energy drinks laced with carnitine – a substance found in meat (and some plant foods at lower levels). Carnitine is converted in the body into a harmful compound called TMAO that increases the build-up of cholesterol in the arteries. Vegans may not have the type of gut bacteria that produces TMAO from carnitine. The safety of carnitine supplements has been questioned and it seems likely that carnitine from meat could be just as harmful.

If that’s not enough to put you off, consider the arsenic residues found in the breast meat of chickens fed arsenic-containing animal feed additives. Banned in the EU, these additives continue to be used in many other countries.

It’s difficult to say which component of meat is the most harmful as there are so many to choose from! Saturated fat, cholesterol, salt, NOCs, HCAs, PAHs, carnitine, arsenic – meat’s got the lot!

A large body of evidence links meat to a premature death. Substituting just one serving of red meat a day for a healthier source of protein (pulses, wholegrains, nuts and seeds) can reduce the risk of early death so imagine what ditching meat altogether can achieve. Vegetarian Adventists have a lower risk of cancer, CVD, diabetes and live longer compared to the general population. Other studies agree that high-meat consumers (especially of processed meat) have an increased risk of early death, this falls in line with the WCRF report which recommends completely avoiding processed meats. That means no bacon, ever.

The EPIC studies in the UK and Europe may not match the substantive evidence seen in US, but taken together they do show the benefits of avoiding meat. The EPIC-Oxford Study failed to find a link between meat-eating and early death but the meat-eaters in this study were more health-conscious than the average UK meat-eater and death rates of all participants were lower than average. An earlier, larger EPIC study in Europe did reveal a link between processed meat and early death. A subsequent EPIC-Oxford Study combined with the Oxford Vegetarian Study also found a lower rate of early deaths before the age of 75 among vegetarians and vegans compared to meat-eaters when participants known to have changed diet group were excluded. It may be that when people fell ill, they switched group joining the healthier vegans!

Another reason the UK studies are not quite as strong as the US ones may be that UK vegetarians and vegans are motivated by factors other than health (animal welfare and/or the environment), making them less likely follow such a healthy diet as the Adventist vegetarians in the US, whose motivation is health. Furthermore, the amount of animal protein (dairy products and eggs) in the UK vegetarian diet was significantly higher than that in the vegetarian Adventists’ diet. A diet filled with eggs and cheese may offer little advantage to one packed with meat. A healthy vegan diet is made up of plenty of fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, pulses, nuts and seeds and no animal fat or animal protein.   

The scientific consensus is that meat increases the risk of a premature death. Researchers from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food suggest that, on a vegan diet, more than eight million premature deaths could be avoided by 2050. Replacing meat with a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, pulses, nuts and seeds remains a sound, evidence-based recommendation for improving the quality of life and avoiding an early death. 

Then there are the well-documented and irrefutable links between meat and cancer. In the UK, one in every two people born after 1960 will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. After smoking, poor diet is the most important avoidable cause of cancer. Meat has been recognised as a risk factor for cancer since the early 1900s. Countries with high intakes have higher rates of bowel, breast and prostate cancer, three of the most common cancers. The NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study found that people who ate the most red meat had a higher risk for oesophageal, bowel, liver and lung cancer and those who ate the most processed meat had a higher risk for bowel and lung cancer.

It’s difficult to know which component of meat is responsible for the links with cancer as there are so many candidates: saturated fat, animal protein, haem iron, salt, NOCs, HCAs and PAHs... it’s an extensive list. A diet high in saturated fat, leading to obesity, increases the risk of breast, prostate and bowel cancer as well as heart disease and diabetes. Animal protein increases IGF-1 levels, which increase the risk of bowel and lung cancer. Iron overload may increase cancer risk by generating free radicals and inducing oxidative stress. NOCs from nitrite-preserved meats and bacterial production in the gut, bind to DNA and cause mutations that can lead to cancer. HCAs and PAHs produced by cooking meat at high temperatures are carcinogenic. Avoiding meat completely is an effective way to reduce the risk of cancer.

A study from the University of Oxford, found that compared with meat-eaters, cancer incidence was lower in fish-eaters and vegetarians but lower still in vegans. Results of AHS-2 were similar, with total cancer risk significantly lower in vegetarians and vegans than in meat-eaters. This adds to a large body of evidence, not least the substantive WCRF and WHO reports that state clearly that meat consumption is linked to cancer. Current guidelines need to be amended to reflect the indisputable link between meat and cancer. Cigarettes carry a government health warning, why shouldn’t bacon?

Links between diet and breast cancer have been suspected for a long time. The wide variation in breast cancer rates around the world and migration studies show that genes are a minor cause, responsible for just 5-10 per cent of breast cancers. Research shows that diets rich in meat and dairy are linked to a higher risk of breast cancer compared to plant-based diets. The Nurses’ Health Study II found that each daily serving of meat increased the risk substantially – especially in women using oral contraceptives. Given the high incidence rate for breast cancer (one in eight women in the UK), they say that the consumption of meat should be regarded as a public health concern.

Girls exposed to radiation from the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were more likely to get breast cancer later in life than those not exposed, but women over 40 who were exposed did not have an increased risk. This inspired researchers to investigate the adolescent diets of women in the Nurses’ Health Study II. Results showed that those who ate a lot of meat when they were young had a much higher risk of premenopausal breast cancer.

Several different substances in meat may be responsible for the link with breast cancer including: HCAs and PAHs created during cooking, animal fat, haem iron and hormone residues. Fruit, vegetables and fibre are all associated with a lower risk. Dietary advice given at mammography screenings would be an effective way of helping women lower their risk of breast cancer. Such advice should include how a low-fat, high-fibre, meat-free diet consisting mainly of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and pulses can result in a major reduction in the risk of breast cancer.

The global distribution of prostate cancer is similar to that of breast cancer; countries with high levels of one tend to have high levels of the other. As the Western diet takes over more traditional diets in developing countries, the number of men with prostate cancer increases and high consumption of meat (particularly red, processed and well-done meat), is associated with the increased risk. It is suggested that PhiP and other HCAs are responsible. Fried, roast and grilled chicken can contain particularly high amounts of HCAs. 

The Prostate Cancer Lifestyle Trial found that patients with early-stage prostate cancer were able to avoid or delay conventional treatment for at least two years by following a vegan diet. A small pilot study suggested a vegan diet may help combat the disease by increasing the length of the telomeres, stretches of DNA that protect the ends of our chromosomes, like the plastic caps that prevent shoelaces from unravelling. Despite the evidence, advice from the NHS on the links between diet and prostate cancer remains sparse.

High intakes of meat and haem iron are also linked to lung cancer, one of the most common and serious types of cancer. In 2007, red and processed meats were classified by the WCRF/AICR as possible causes of lung cancer. The NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study found red meat was linked to lung cancer too as well as cancers of the bowel, liver and oesophagus and processed meat was linked to lung and bowel cancer. They said one in ten lung and bowel cancers could be avoided if people reduced their meat intake. Avoiding meat altogether would be even more effective.

Heavy metals and other chemicals (including synthetic hormones) in organ meat may be responsible. It may be the NOCs found in preserved meat and produced in the gut in response to high haem iron intake. It may be the haem iron, which can increase cancer progression. Iron overload can switch on cancer genes, trigger inflammatory responses and iron-induced hypoxia signalling – a classical feature of cancer. It could be HCAs and PAHs which are which are potent lung carcinogens. High intakes of animal protein drive up IGF-1 levels in the body and people with lung cancer tend to have higher levels of this growth hormone. Vegans tend to have lower levels of IGF-1 and high intakes of vegetables, fruit and soya reduce the risk of lung cancer.

The link between meat and bowel cancer is well-established, it is one of the best-known diseases associated with meat. A number of substances in meat are thought to be responsible. It may be the animal fat or the animal protein as both can promote cancer. It could be the carcinogenic NOCs formed in food and/or in the gut, or HCAs and PAHs formed in meat cooked at high temperature or the haem iron in red meat which can promote carcinogenesis through oxidation and DNA damage. Take your pick!

People who eat 400g or more of meat a day might be exposed to as many NOCs as a smoker! So meat-eaters may be in need of the same level of health advice as smokers. Which is what Labour Member of Parliament for Bristol East, Kerry McCarthy suggested in 2015 in an interview for Viva!life magazine. The research supports her suggestion; better dietary advice could save lives. Bowel cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among non-smokers in affluent countries and its prevention should be a major goal for public health. Given what we now know about the harmful effects of meat and bowel cancer, isn’t it about time the government amended health guidelines to properly reflect the risks associated with meat?  

Studies show that mutagens in cooked meat are associated with renal cell carcinoma, the most common form of kidney cancer. A developing theory is that HCAs activate enzymes in such a way that they behave differently and cause mutations in DNA that can lead to cancer. Meat intake is linked to pancreatic cancer too, the fourth most common cause of cancer death worldwide. Studies show that meat, particularly meat cooked at high temperatures, plays a significant role in this disease. Both animal fat and haem iron are suspected to play a part in the links between meat and pancreatic cancer too. British vegetarians and vegans have a substantially lower risk of this disease than meat-eaters. The huge EPIC study found strong links with chicken and suggested that antibiotics and/or drugs called coccidiostats given to poultry and cattle to prevent the growth of parasites may be involved. They also suggested that animal oncogenic viruses may cause cancer if meat is not cooked enough. So you are damned if you cook it, and damned if you don’t!

The links between processed meat and stomach cancer, the fifth most common cancer worldwide, have been known about for over a decade. In 2015, the WHO reported links between processed meat and stomach cancer. Then in 2016 the WCRF said that there is strong evidence that consuming processed meat increases the risk of this disease. They also said that grilled and barbecued meat was linked to it and eating little or no fruit also increased the risk. High levels of salt, nitrite, nitrate and NOCs in processed meats have been blamed as well as carcinogenic and mutagenic PAHs in smoked meat.

CVD is one of the biggest killers responsible for early death. Researchers from Harvard School of Public Health found a significant link between processed meat and CVD. The Nurses’ Health Study reported similar links between red meat and heart disease; replacing one serving of meat with nuts lowered the risk. A later study from the same group combined with the US Health Professionals Follow-up Study found replacing meat with nuts also lowered the risk of stroke. A later study from both cohorts again confirmed that both red and processed meat increased the risk of CVD and substituting meat with healthier sources of protein lowered it.

In Europe, the large EPIC study found a link between processed meat and CVD. They suggested the chemicals used in processed meats may be responsible for damaging blood vessels. Furthermore, processed meats contain even more saturated fat than red meat and this type of unhealthy fat increases the risk of CVD. Haem iron may be involved too as high iron stores are a risk factor and research shows that women who menstruate and people who donate blood regularly have a lower risk of CVD.  It has been suggested we should end iron-fortification of flour and encourage more blood donations to reduce iron stores and lower the risk of CVD. You could just avoid meat and opt for non-haem iron from plant foods as absorption is regulated and you only take up as much as you need. In a nutshell; ditching meat lowers your risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke.

One in every four adults in the UK is obese. People who eat a lot of meat are more likely to be overweight or obese because of the high fat content of meat. Many people choose chicken thinking that it is a healthier option to red meat. Chicken accounts for nearly half of all the meat bought in the UK with around 2.2 million chickens being eaten every single day! However, selective breeding and intensive farming ensures that chicken is not a healthy option with the average supermarket chicken containing more fat than protein.  

An interesting finding from the EPIC-PANACEA study was that a diet rich in meat caused more weight gain than a low-meat diet containing the same number of calories. The strongest links were seen for chicken and processed meat. A pro-meat group (including a speaker from National Cattlemen’s Beef Association) suggested the additional weight could be increased muscle mass but this was ruled out after belly fat was measured. They found that animal protein-rich diets were linked to weight gain especially when they missed out fibre from carbohydrates. More research is needed but the fact remains that meat makes people gain more weight than plant-based diets even when they contain the same number of calories. You are better off replacing chicken with chickpeas!

The highest levels of osteoporosis are seen in Europe and the US (particularly among white people in the US) and the lowest rates in South America, Africa and Asia. Diet and lifestyle are clearly involved as black Americans have a lower risk than white Americans, but a higher risk than black Africans. The same scenario is seen in Japanese people in Hawaii compared to those in Japan and Chinese people in Singapore compared with mainland China. The more affluent the diet (rich in meat and dairy), the higher the risk of osteoporosis and fracture is.

The acid-alkaline hypothesis suggests that as food is digested, acids are released into the blood and the body tries to neutralise it by drawing calcium from the bones if there isn’t enough calcium readily available. Meat and dairy are particularly bad as they contain more acid-promoting amino acids (the building blocks of protein). So the more meat and dairy you eat, the more acidic the blood, the more calcium is potentially lost from the bone – that’s the theory.

The most osteoporosis occurs in the countries that consume the most animal protein. If you want to lower your risk of osteoporosis, ditching all animal protein is a good place to start. Weight-bearing exercise (stair-climbing, walking or dancing) is the best option for improving your bone health while ensuring you get enough plant-based calcium and vitamin D.

The numbers of people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes is rising globally at such a rate that in the UK alone, it is estimated that by 2035, the NHS may be spending nearly a fifth of its entire budget on treating diabetes. A large body of evidence shows how proteins found in cow’s milk can trigger type 1 diabetes in some people but more recent research also suggests that children of mothers who eat meat (especially processed meat) while breast-feeding have a higher risk of developing type 1 diabetes later on in childhood.

Meat is also a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes not least because people who eat meat tend to weigh more and people who weigh more have a higher risk. People who eat a lot of fat end up having more sugar in the blood than people who eat lots of carbohydrate. This is because a high-fat, meat-rich diet leads to the build-up of fat globules inside the cells which block insulin activity causing high blood glucose levels, thus increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes. In addition to the harmful effects of fat and cholesterol, haem iron may also increase the risk. The nitrates and nitrites in processed meats are also implicated along with HCAs, PAHs and AGEs. Given the strength of this research, public health guidance should prioritise reducing all meat consumption (red, processed and poultry) to reduce not only diabetes but the secondary diseases it can lead to too.  

Meat and dairy foods are also linked to fertility problems; men who eat the most meat and full-fat dairy products tend to have fewer and slower sperm than those eating the most fruit and vegetables. This may be because of the vitamins, folic acid and fibre and the fewer proteins and fats in the healthier Mediterranean-style diet. Replacing animal protein with plant protein can reduce infertility risk in women too. Couples trying to conceive should be advised about the important effects of diet for men and women.

It is estimated that one in five people in England suffer food poisoning every year. Animal foods, particularly meat and meat products, are responsible for most cases. If plant foods cause poisoning, it tends to be because they are contaminated with animal excreta, human sewerage or were handled with dirty hands. In the UK, Campylobacter is the most common foodborne pathogen (while Salmonella is responsible for the most hospital admissions). Chicken is the most common food associated with food poisoning in the UK and the FSA recently launched a campaign advising people not to wash raw chicken as the splashes could contaminate clothes, skin and the entire kitchen!

Cheap meat comes at a cost; the expansion of large-scale factory-farms has led to many problems including the safe disposal of millions of tons of manure, making many streams and rivers too polluted for swimming, drinking or maintaining healthy wildlife. Mechanical evisceration (removal of internal organs) of slaughtered animals is now done so rapidly that meat is frequently contaminated with faecal residues from the guts which is especially a concern with poultry as people eat the skin. It can also cause problems when meat is minced for burgers for example, then eaten rare because the bacteria on the outside becomes incorporated throughout the meat. One study found seven out of ten pork samples and nine out of ten chicken samples were contaminated with an antibiotic resistant bug found in the animals’ gut. This is probably why over 70 per cent of fresh shop-bought chickens in the UK tested positive for Campylobacter in 2015. More recently the number testing positive dropped to 50 per cent but it was later revealed that some producers were removing the neck skin before testing – neck skin is the most contaminated part of the bird. The FSA abandoned the project and have said they will start a new one with the first results due in 2017.

Most cases of E. coli food poisoning are caused by undercooked beef (particularly mince, burgers and meatballs) as well unpasteurised milk. Salmonella bacteria are often found in raw or undercooked meat (especially chicken, pork and beef), as well as dairy products and eggs. Chickens, pigs and cows may be infected with Salmonella even though they show no symptoms. Going vegan is no guarantee that you will avoid food poisoning, but it certainly lowers the risk substantially.     

The routine use of antibiotics in farmed animals has led to the rapid increase in antibiotic-resistant bugs or superbugs which can be passed on to people from undercooked meat. Superbugs are increasing at an alarming rate. Research shows that certain strains of MRSA were established in UK pig farms and third-generation cephalosporin-resistant E. coli originate directly from the overuse of antibiotics in broiler chicken farms. Despite an EU ban on growth-promoting antibiotics in animal feed, huge quantities of antibiotics continue to be given for ‘disease prevention’. In the UK, nearly half of all antibiotics are given to farmed animals. For more information see Viva!’s report: Pig Farming, The Inside Story: www.viva.org.uk/pigreport.

Bacteria resistant to the antibiotic colistin (our last defence against multi-resistant bacteria) have recently emerged. A new development is that these resistance genes can be passed from one strain to another, illustrating how antibiotic use in animals is creating a major human health risk. The need to restrict and even ban the use of certain antibiotics in animals has never been so urgent. We are charging headlong towards a ‘post-antibiotic era’ where bacterial infections in people may no longer respond to the antibiotics we have been relying on for years. So, if you undercook meat, you could expose yourself to bacteria, which may be antibiotic-resistant, but if you overcook it, you could be at risk from carcinogenic compounds. The dilemma is a no-brainer!                                                                                                                   

Viruses can cause gastroenteritis (or stomach flu). The ‘winter vomiting bug’ norovirus is a common cause, affecting up to one million in the UK every year. Outbreaks often occur in hospitals, schools and cruise ships, where infection spreads rapidly. Bivalve shellfish (oysters, mussels and clams) are often the cause. Other foodborne viruses (such as hepatitis E) have been found in meat from pigs, wild boar and deer. Foodborne transmission of hepatitis E is relatively rare but the virus can be passed on in undercooked meat such as: pork pies, liver pâté, wild boar and under-cooked or raw pork and sausages. People with liver disease, immuno-compromised people and pregnant women should be discouraged from eating these types of meats in particular.

Avian influenza (or bird flu), came to international attention in the late 1990s when it spread through live-poultry markets in Hong Kong, infected people and caused six deaths. There are different strains of varying severity; the H5N1 strain has killed 450 people to date while the H7N9 has killed 229. Avian flu viruses aren’t usually transmitted from one person to another but human-to-human infection is possible and there have been a number of cases among families caring for infected relatives. The highly-pathogenic H5N1 causes death in 60 per cent of the people it infects. The 1918 flu pandemic, a deadly pandemic that infected 500 million people across the world, caused death in just two per cent of those infected. Imagine what harm bird flu would do if it became easily passed on from person to person!  

Bird flu represents a disturbing new evolutionary development in the behaviour of the avian flu virus. It’s a disaster of our own making, spreading from aquatic birds (where it has coexisted quite happily for thousands of years) into live-poultry markets and on to factory farms which provide the perfect environment for a mutating virus. The poultry industry has responded to the crisis predictably by playing down the human risk. One way to take control would be for large numbers of people to stop eating poultry, pigs and other animals and remove the viral reservoir of factory-farms.

The reason beef sales plummeted in the 1990s was the BSE crisis when despite agricultural minister John Gummer’s reassurances that British beef was perfectly safe, a number of people became ill and died from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), the human form of BSE. An inquiry revealed that BSE was caused by cows being fed the remains of other cows in the form of meat and bone meal. As herbivores, this is obviously a very unnatural practice for them and has since been banned. CJD has killed close to 200 people in the UK. The most recent was in 2016, when a 37-year-old man was diagnosed two weeks before he died. People infected with CJD may carry the disease for up to 50 years before symptoms develop and it has been suggested that we are not yet through the worst of this sinister disease.

Another dip in red meat consumption occurred in 2013 when it was revealed that various meat product manufacturers were selling mislabelled food that was actually horsemeat. The scandal revealed a major breakdown in the traceability of the food supply chain and showed the potential for harmful ingredients to be included as well. The scandal spread to other countries revealing widespread mislabelling of meat products and insufficient labelling information for sausages, pâté and pies. The discovery of a Spanish warehouse filled with 15 tons of dead stray dogs added further to the scandal. Viva! found out that limited testing for dog and cat meat was done in London but the FSA said the results were negative. The fear is that meat from euthanised dogs, cats, horses or other sick animals may have found its way into pet food, farmed animal feed or human food. If this happens, residues of antibiotics and other drugs could end up in some meat products. People also do have the right to know what they are eating!

We are not designed to eat meat. If you look at a carnivore’s teeth and jaws, how highly acidic their stomachs are and how short their colons are, you can see we share more characteristics with herbivores. When did you last see an enthusiastic meat-eater snatch up a live rabbit and tear through the fur and into the flesh, crunching its raw bones with their bare teeth? Humans tend not to eat meat unless it is packaged, cooked and often flavoured with spices, herbs and seasoning. Mandy Pella’s photo of a piece of bacon with a nipple on it went viral after she posted it on Facebook with the caption: “I was going to make BLTs for dinner until I realised my bacon still had a nipple on it”. The widespread horror shows how most meat-eaters are uncomfortable being reminded that meat is part of a dead animal.

We are not the same as our Palaeolithic ‘hunter-gatherer’ ancestors (but even then, plant foods were the staples); humans continued evolving into the more recent Neolithic era 10,000 years ago. Modern adaptations include increased production of an enzyme that helps us digest carbohydrates (bread, rice and other wholegrains). In fact, research shows that early farmers relied much more heavily on plant protein than previously thought. The theory behind the Paleo Diet is wrong. Then there is the outdated notion that meat made us smart – the ‘expensive tissue hypothesis’. A higher quality diet, coupled to the energy saved by walking upright, growing more slowly and reproducing later, fuelled the growth in human brain size, not eating meat.  

We simply can’t afford to keep eating meat. A meat-eaters’ diet is responsible for almost twice the greenhouse gas emissions as vegetarians’ and going vegan could cut your emissions more than seven-fold. Meaty diets require more land, water, energy, fertiliser and pesticides than vegan diets – they use far more resources. The 2006 Stern Report warned that if we ignore global warming, the global economy could face devastation on the scale of the Great Depression or the 20th century’s world wars. The UN report, Livestock’s Long Shadow says livestock farming is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s transport (cars, buses, trucks, trains, ships and planes) put together! Changing the way we eat could have a phenomenal effect on the environment, but not changing it could be even more dramatic! The diet that is good for the planet is also good for us. The EPIC-NL study found that replacing meat with nuts, seeds, pasta, rice or couscous was associated with a lower risk of early death and a reduced environmental burden. If you care about the environment then it is essential that you adopt a green diet – a vegan diet. 

There is no nutritional benefit from meat that can’t be found in a varied vegan diet; you are much better of getting healthier fats, plant protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals from a range of plant foods. The health benefits of avoiding meat are indisputable which is why, slowly but surely, the worlds’ most reputable health bodies are beginning to recommend change. The meat industry has been able to influence official dietary guidelines for decades. Just look at how the US Department of Agriculture rejected the advice of their own expert panel by not including considerations of environmental sustainability in the most recent edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Unfortunately the pro-meat crusade will continue while the meat industry has money and influence. However, it seems the UK government and other health bodies are beginning to show some small signs of acknowledging the harm meat does. The evidence presented in this report should help promote a more significant change in public health advice such that people are advised to stop eating meat altogether and go vegan. If the government aren’t brave enough to do it then hopefully people will make the change for themselves anyway.