Red meat and processed food linked to sharp rise in diet-related deaths

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Red meat and processed foods like bacon, sausage, and burgers are contributing to a “sharp increase” in diet-related deaths, a new study warns.

Researchers from Michigan State University say the worldwide increase in processed meat consumption over the last three decades appears to have a connection to over 10,000 more deaths from preventable illnesses related to what people eat in recent years. These conditions include bowel cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

Their findings reveal the impact has been greatest in Europe and island nations in the Caribbean and Oceania. Study authors believe health policies should be integrated with agricultural and trade policies among importing and exporting nations “as a matter of urgency” to reduce further preventable deaths.

They explained that the global red and processed meat trade has risen “exponentially” over the last 30 years to meet demand created by factors including continuous urbanization and income growth. However, this trend has implications for the environment because of the impact it has on land use and biodiversity loss.

Meat production reaching stunning levels worldwide

The research team wanted to discover what impact the red and processed meat trade might be having on diet-related non-communicable disease trends as well as which nations might be particularly vulnerable. They drew on meat production and trade figures from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) from 1993 to 2018 for 154 countries, focusing on 14 red meat items including beef, pork, lamb, and goat. They also looked that six processed primarily beef and pork items, preserved by smoking, salting, curing, or chemicals.

Researchers then calculated deaths and years of life lived with disability (DALYs) attributable to diet as a result of bowel cancer, type 2 diabetes, and coronary artery heart disease among those over the age of 25 in each country.

Study lead author Dr. Min Gon Chung explains that the worldwide red and processed meat trade increased by more than 148 percent over the last three decades, going from 10 metric tons in 1993-95 to nearly 25 metric tons in 2016-18. During the same period, the number of net importing countries rose from 121 to 128.

Dr. Chong notes that developed countries in Europe account for half of total red and processed meat exports over the course of this investigation. At the same time, developing countries in South America — such as Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay — made up nearly 10 percent in 2016–18, up from around five percent in 1993–95.

Developing countries also increased their meat imports by a staggering 342.5 percent during the study, going from around two metric tons to nearly nine metric tons in 2016–18. Developed nations roughly doubled their meat imports over the last 30 years.

Deaths and disabilities on the rise

Study authors discovered a connection between diet-related deaths and DALY rates and the rise in global meat trade for three-quarters of the 154 countries in the report. Worldwide, the researchers calculated that increases in red and processed meat consumption, aligned to increases in trade, accounted for 10,898 attributable deaths in 2016–18. That’s an increase of almost 75 percent in comparison to 1993-95.

Dr. Chong says the global meat trade contributed to an increase of 55 percent in diet-related deaths and a 71-percent increase in the number of years people live with disabilities. In developing nations, the news is even worse.

Researchers saw a 137-percent increase in diet-related deaths and a 140-percent uptick in DALY rates as a result of increased demand for meat. Study authors attribute much of this to rapid urbanization and income growth.

Between 1993 and 2018, island nations in the Caribbean and Oceania and countries in Northern and Eastern Europe became “particularly vulnerable” to diet-related disease and deaths associated with large meat imports, according to the researchers.

Dr. Chong explains that island nations have limited land for meat production, so they depend heavily on meat imports. Meanwhile, many European countries like Slovakia, Lithuania, and Latvia, benefited from regional trade agreements and tariff exemptions after joining the European Union in 2003-04, which accelerated meat imports to their nations.

Where is the meat crisis hitting the hardest?

In 1993–95, the top 10 countries with the highest proportion of deaths attributable to red meat consumption included Tonga, United Arab Emirates, Barbados, Fiji, Gabon, Bahamas, Greece, Malta, Brunei, and Saint Lucia.

In 2016–2018, the top 10 included the Netherlands, Bahamas, Tonga, Denmark, Antigua and Barbuda, Seychelles, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Croatia, and Greece.

Study authors note the meat trade in these countries accounted for more than seven percent of all deaths attributable to diets high in both red meat and processed foods in 2016-18. The trends in attributable disabilities mirrored the increases in diet-attributable deaths.

Not every nation is becoming a meat-heavy society, the team notes. Death and disability rates tied to global meat production actually fell in 34 countries between 1993–95 and 2016–18. However, this is partly due to population growth exceeding increases in meat imports in 24 countries, while domestic meat production increased in 19 nations.

In more than half of these countries, the study finds the total number of diet-related deaths and disabilities rose in tandem with increasing meat consumption over these 30 years. The researchers acknowledge that many countries import and process red meat items for export, which may have skewed their findings.

“This study shows that global increases in red and processed meat trade contribute to the abrupt increase of diet-related [non-communicable diseases]… Future interventions need to urgently integrate health policies with agricultural and trade policies by cooperating between responsible exporting and importing countries,” Dr. Chong’s team writes in a media release.

The findings appear in the journal BMJ Global Health.

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.