Death And Bacon: Dealing With The Health Crisis Du Jour

bacon1“In an interview with a fashion industry web site, Kate Moss said, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” Said the rest of the world: “Bacon!””

Oh, bacon! How we love you! But despite that quip from Seth Meyers during his run as Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” anchor, I wouldn’t want to be a brand manager at Oscar Meyer right now. Not on the bacon business or on any of their processed meats. Poor Oscar Meyer. First their parent company, Kraft, gets acquired and merged with Heinz by the Lords of Layoffs, 3G Capital. And now the World Health Organization adds insult to injury by reporting that processed meats are linked to cancer.

This is definitely not the time to wish you were an Oscar Meyer wiener.

What would you do if you were in the processed meat business and faced with this challenge? It’s not that they couldn’t see it coming. Fairly or not, Big Food has turned into Big Tobacco, condemned by radical activists and mainstream health professionals alike. And as the media noted, there’s nothing new at all about the newly released report. The WHO is simply putting an exclamation point on previously conducted studies.

The industry wasted no time in responding. The usual denials from the usual suspects.

The North American Meat Institute “called the WHO report “dramatic and alarmist overreach,” mocking the panel’s previous work for approving a substance found in yoga pants and treating coffee, sunlight and wine as potential cancer hazards.

Betsy Booren, NAMI’s VP of Scientific Affairs, charged that “they tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome.”

Shalene McNeill, Executive Director Of Human Nutrition at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, opined “we simply don’t think the evidence supports any causal link between any red meat and any type of cancer.”

Janet Riley, NAMI’s Senior Vice President of Public Affairs, claimed thatthe benefits of the protein, the iron, the zinc, the B vitamins that are in meat products far outweigh any theoretical risks.”

Note the language in that last quote.  She defines the risks as “theoretical,” denying the science behind the WHO report. Sound familiar?

These defensive comments were especially interesting in light of nearly all the expert commentary I heard on the radio and read in the newspapers, including what some consider to be the “liberal” media. Most health professionals did not seem to be that alarmed, reacting to the report with an “everything in moderation” mantra instead. We’re not going to stop people completely from eating foods they love. If you want to have bacon a few times a month, go ahead. Just don’t do it every day. A New York Times editorial quoted  Dr. John Ioannidis, the chairman of disease prevention at Stanford University, as saying, “I think it’s very important that we don’t terrorize people into thinking that they should not eat any red meat at all.”

Given that meat is big business, you can understand the kneejerk response to defend itself. However, such a defensive posture, especially in light of facts to the contrary, is hardly a quality that will defuse this situation. Why food companies keep taking a page from the Big Tobacco playbook is puzzling. We all know that eating pounds of salty, fatty, processed meat can’t be good for us. Just as we all know that cigarettes will make you sick and that sugary Frosted Flakes are not an “important part of this good breakfast.”

The alcoholic beverage industry got this one right, or as close to right as you can get when the downside to consuming your product is death and disease. “Enjoy our products in moderation” is an implicit recognition of the dangers of drinking, but shifts the responsibility to the drinker, not the manufacturer.

Not to underestimate the importance of the WHO report – it will surely have a big impact –  but I wonder what would have happened if the meat lobby had simply waited a few days to gauge the public’s reaction and then weighed in with calmer rhetoric. Maybe this it wouldn’t have been such a big deal.

Regardless, I don’t envy the processed meat marketing people who will be tasked with increasing volume and market share for products with “links to cancer.” In the end it will be a losing battle. But the losses will be heavier and come more rapidly with each tobacco industry-like denial.

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