US red meat study – Soil Association response
14 March 2012
A recent and widely reported study by the Harvard School of Medicine claims consumption of red meat is responsible for one in ten early deaths. While the Soil Association does not contest the findings of the study, we do question their relevance beyond the US due to the large differences in the way red meat, particularly beef, is produced and consumed in different parts of the world.
US beef is primarily raised in feedlots after weaning, meaning it is mostly grain-fed with little or no grass in the diet. By comparison, most beef cattle in the UK, for example, graze for much of the year and eat hay or silage when indoors. While grass-fed beef is available in the US and some producers now specialise in it, it accounts for only a small proportion of total production.
The diet fed to beef cattle has a large impact on the proportion of different fatty acids in the meat, with grass-fed beef containing up to 11 times more omega-3 fatty acids as well as higher levels of cancer-fighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and lower total fat.
In addition, over the last 25 years most US beef cattle have been given both hormone and antibiotic growth promoters. There has long been evidence that even small increases in hormone levels as a result of using hormone growth promoters can increase the risk of people developing cancer in later life. In the UK, these hormones have been banned since 1986.
In response to the report, Soil Association policy advisor Richard Young said “we have to recognise that the way in which most beef, in particular, is produced in the US is very different from the way most beef is produced in the UK. During the whole period when this study was undertaken, almost all beef in the US was getting hormone growth promoters and antibiotic growth promoters in feed. There are good reasons to believe that these both increase the risk of cancer.”