Bad news for red meat is bad news for chickens

Red meat has a bad PR problem. Two recent meta-analyses—one published in 2009 and one in 2011—linked red meat consumption to increased colon cancer risk. In May, the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund reaffirmed conclusions from an earlier comprehensive report, saying that the evidence for a relationship between red meat and colon cancer is “convincing.”

And it’s not just cancer; a study published just last week found that adults who consume 4 ounces of red meat per day have a 20 percent increased risk for developing diabetes.

The evidence strongly suggests that it’s a good idea for everyone to reduce their intake of red and processed meats. But from the animals’ perspective, this is not necessarily great news. That’s because many of these studies find that other animal foods—which can easily replace red meat in the diet—don’t carry the same risks. There is no compelling body of evidence to suggest that eating white meat raises cancer risk and, some research suggests that replacing red meat with white meat lowers risk. (This is not to say that white meat is itself protective or has any particular health benefits. It’s probably neutral and therefore lowers risk when it replaces harmful red meat.)

People are likely to react to news about the dangers of red and processed meats by replacing these foods with other meats—from fish and chickens—and in the process cause suffering to many, many more animals.

Assuming that one steer provides around 450 pounds of meat, a person eating a pound of beef per week would be responsible for the death of one steer every 8 ½ years or so. Replace that pound of beef a week with a pound of chicken (assuming that the average chicken yields 2 pounds of meat) and the number of animals killed would be about 220 chickens over the same time period. In fact, even if the health-conscious, meat-shunning consumer chose to reduce her meat intake by 75 percent—eating just 4 ounces of meat per week and getting all of it as chicken flesh—she would still be responsible for the death of more than 50 birds over that 8 ½ year period.

And not only do more animals die when people replace red meat with chicken in their diet, but chickens and other birds live and die under conditions that are horrible even by the usual horrible standards of modern farming.

Red and processed meat consumption is a serious public health concern, and people need to know about the importance of reducing these foods in their diets. But publicizing every new study about the hazards of red meat doesn’t promote veganism; it promotes animal suffering.  A message about a vegan ethic, on the other hand, is a double win. It helps reduce animal suffering while also encouraging people to eliminate hazardous foods from their diets.

Edited on 3/13/12 : A study just published online in the Archives of Internal Medicine (I’ll add a link when it appears in pub med) found that all types of red meat are associated with increased risk for cancer and heart disease. Just 3 ounces a day of red meat was associated with a 13% increased risk of dying during the course of the study. The researchers also found that replacing red meat with poultry or low-fat dairy foods decreased risk as much or more than replacing it with legumes. This is another example of how a focus on the health risks of red meat in particular doesn’t necessarily translate to a positive vegan message.

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28 Responses to Bad news for red meat is bad news for chickens

  1. Nancy August 17, 2011 at 8:31 am #

    Thanks Ginny. You are absolutely correct that a message about a VEGAN ethic is the way to go. Not a “vegetarian”message, not a ve*gan message, not reduction of flesh and cows milk message. etc.
    Now what about Dr. Mercola and others like him who profess that “grass fed beef” is healthier? Also he claims that grains are anathema to good health. Do you know why?

  2. myvegancookbook August 17, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    “There is no compelling body of evidence to suggest that eating white meat raises cancer risk and, some research suggests that replacing red meat with white meat lowers risk.”

    Hmm, I don’t believe this to be true at all. It seems to me undeniable evidence is growing that all animal foods are bad. Have you not seen Forks Over Knives yet? That will make you a believer. And it’s making others believers too. It’s turning people vegan left and right. I have a friend who I never in a million years thought would go vegan and he’s making the transition after seeing it.

    I don’t think you will hear T. Colin Campbell (a nutritional scientist) or Dr. Esselstyn suggesting that you replace red meat with chicken. I also imagine they would chuckle at the idea that chicken lowers the risk of cancer. This new health movement that Campbell is at the fore-front of, is calling for all animal foods to be removed from your diet. A total win for health and animal rights advocates, no matter how you shake & bake it.

    • Ginny Messina August 17, 2011 at 2:53 pm #

      I wasn’t implying that chicken lowers cancer risk, and I made an edit to the post to clarify that. It’s probably just not as harmful as red meat and therefore, when you replace red meat with chicken, risk for cancer decreases.

      If you look at the actual scientific evidence–the peer-reviewed studies–it’s extremely difficult to make the case that people need to eliminate all animal foods from their diets in order to be healthy. And I think you’d also be hard pressed to find any nutrition experts who would say so.

      The fact is that even people who greatly reduce their intake of animal foods for health reasons–and the evidence for doing so is certainly compelling–if they are replacing red meat with white meat, they are killing more animals. Therefore, a focus on the harmful effects of red meat is not good vegan advocacy.

      • myvegancookbook August 17, 2011 at 5:23 pm #

        Dr. Esselstyn and Campbell believe that every time animal products touch your lips you do damage to the lining of your artery walls. He certainly has the experience to back up his statements. If what he says is true, and the certainly seems convinced of it, then being 100 percent vegan would mean you are at your healthiest. Healthy and healthiest are 2 different things.

        • Robert September 14, 2011 at 8:38 am #

          “If what he says is true, and the certainly seems convinced of it, then being 100 percent vegan would mean you are at your healthiest.”

          That’s quite a leap in logic. Its also called a non sequitor. If some is good then more must be better. Not necessarily.

          Studies showing that fruits and vegetables are protective against things like cancer and heart disease never state that the diet must be 100% plant-based. Mediterranean diets are protective and they do include modest amounts of dairy, fish, lamb, etc. There is likely a level of fruit and vegetable intake where you reach a maximum benefit. Any further intake has no additional benefit. Studies have shown this to be true in many other cases. For example, studies show that plant sterols are effective in lowering cholesterol when consumed in amounts of 1.8 to 3 grams per day. Additional amounts (>3g/d) have no further benefit.

          I’d say a *mostly* plant-based diet is probably ideal for most people but that’s my opinion based upon my experience, books and available research.

          Be careful when recommending a strict diet for everyone. Not everyone can thrive on such diets. Dr. Esselstyn also recommends a VLF diet (no nuts, oils, avocado, etc.) I couldn’t stand such a diet unless I was on Death’s door and even then I’d reconsider … ;o)

          • Sarah October 1, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

            Robert,

            I believe Dr. Esselstyn recommends a VLF diet (no nuts, oils, avocado, etc) for people who are suffering serious heart disease (Death’s door, as you mentioned). Once a person recovers from this condition, I believe there is room for avocadoes, nuts, seeds, olives, etc in the diet for people who do not have heart disease. I think he doesn’t recommend oils for anyone because they are a processed food as opposed to a whole food.

            • Robert October 5, 2011 at 12:02 pm #

              Sarah,

              I’m glad to hear that! It would be a tough diet to follow over the long-term unless a person was greatly motivated. Having heart problems would be a great motivator.

          • Gary June 15, 2013 at 8:05 am #

            It’s not that great a leap. The China Study showed that going from a little to a tiny amount of meat reduced disease rates. Some very healthy, long-lived populations (e.g., the Hunzas and Vilacabmabas) get 95 to 99 percent of their calories from plants. Typically in studies with fruits and vegetables, those in the highest quartile or quintile do best. Yes, that is not quite enough to make an open-and-shut case that 100% plant-based is best, but it’s a reasonable supposition, not a great leap, and certainly not a non sequitor.

        • Hannah March 21, 2012 at 2:54 pm #

          Experience=anecdotal evidence. Would patients improve on a 100% whole foods diet with a high amount of meat? We don’t know, but anecdotes don’t prove causality.

      • SkepticalVegan August 19, 2011 at 7:45 am #

        You continue to be one of the most even handed and rational advocates of veganism, thank you!

  3. Leah Comerford August 17, 2011 at 3:08 pm #

    Thanks for another well thought out article, Ginny. These timely reminders are always good for keeping up my advocacy spirit.

  4. Mute August 18, 2011 at 7:37 pm #

    Many people become vegetarian gradually, for whichever reason, and the first step they take is becoming ‘meat reduced’ — cutting out pig and cow. Ironic? but surely it works for a lot of them. Would cutting out chickens instead be a better way? I think people find killing chickens much easier than cows and pigs, and that’s why they abate the way that they do.

    Anyway, thanks for the post, I’ve never actually thought about it.

  5. Panu Horsmalahti August 19, 2011 at 2:03 pm #

    “And it’s not just cancer; a study published just last week found that adults who consume 4 ounces of red meat per day have a 20 percent increased risk for developing diabetes.”

    It’s a good idea to give a link to the study. I believe you’re referring to this one:
    http://uk.news.yahoo.com/red-meat-increases-diabetes-risk-160641939.html

    • Robert August 23, 2011 at 11:28 am #

      “A large-scale study found a “strong association” between the consumption of red meat and Type 2 diabetes, especially when it is processed.”

      I think it is important to note that processed meats were the worst in terms of increasing risk. Wow! A real shocker there, huh? ;o)

      Did the study also consider other associations? Are people who eat processed meat also more likely to smoke, drink, consume sugar, eat white bread, eat late-night snacks, not exercise, etc, etc? The article your link led me to didn’t talk about other associations.

      • Gary June 15, 2013 at 8:07 am #

        Most published, peer-reviewed studies factor out smoking, drinking, exercise, etc. That said, even if people who ate more processed meat exercised less, that it itself could be a result of their decreased health from the processed meat.

  6. Matt August 22, 2011 at 11:42 am #

    Thanks so much for sticking to the science, Ginny, instead of the latest propaganda. Obviously, you can find “doctors” that promote Atkins / low-carb / Paleo, anti-grain, raw, etc. Sticking to peer-reviewed studies, rather than one side’s latest anecdotal claims, is the only way to keep ourselves honest.

  7. Peter Spendelow September 21, 2011 at 11:06 pm #

    Hi Ginny,

    The situation with environmental impacts is similar, with cattle of course having a much greater environmental and greenhouse gas impact than chickens. The graphic and short article on AnimalVisuals.org I think very well gets the point of your argument across. See http://www.animalvisuals.org/projects/data/1mc. Note that even eating just eggs also kills many more animals when compared to eating beef.

    I think the best way of dealing with this is just to state both the arguments in an affirmative way. Cattle and other livestock have a huge impact on the environment. But if you think that you should switch to chicken instead of beef, you are getting the wrong message, because eating chicken or even eating eggs causes many more animal deaths and much more suffering than eating cattle. The obvious answer to both is to cut or eliminate consumption of both cattle and poultry. That cuts suffering for both types of animals, and improves environmental outcomes on both fronts.

  8. Carl V Phillips March 14, 2012 at 9:07 am #

    Hi, Ginny. Thanks for the clear message. This is a great example of what can happen when someone naively pursues an overly-bright-line agenda that is far outside the mainstream. In economics we call it the theory of the second-best: If you are in a world that deviates from the optimal in many ways, something that might be optimal in a perfect world (discouraging heavy red meat eating) might not be optimal in the real world.

    As I have told you, my family has made the choice to meet our need to consume some meat with maximally humane beef and sustainable marine animals. The judgment is that though these are a *bit* less healthy than chicken, they are much more humane.

  9. LynnCS March 15, 2012 at 2:35 am #

    I love animals too but the most humane thing I can do first is take care of me. I realized years ago that there was nothing joyful or tasty or healthy in eating animal body parts, fluids, fats etc. How I came to find this all so distasteful, I don’t know, but I’m glad I did. I don’t feel deprived. I have studied enough to find everything I need in the plant families. I am so grateful that I have lost my taste for these unhealthy items that I can’t even call food anymore.

  10. Jessica March 16, 2012 at 9:41 pm #

    “Assuming that one steer provides around 450 pounds of meat…”

    Do you have to say the steer “provides” meat? Surely there is another way of saying this, without implying that the steer is happily handing over his organs and muscles for humans to eat…

    I am in agreement that we need to send a clear vegan message. Thanks for this article.

    • Doug Spoonwod March 18, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

      I don’t see how “provides” implies anything about what the steer wants to do. Consider “The window provided the room with sunlight.” “The chair provided me with a place to sit.”

  11. Ciarrai March 21, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    Chickens couldn’t have it any worse. But more of them will have to endure the hideous life that Perdue and Tyson have in store for them. A pox on both their houses. I am on the way to being a vegan (28 years of vegetarian). I just read Gail Eisnitz’s “Slaughterhouse” and I think it pushed me over the edge.

  12. Elaine Vigneault May 22, 2013 at 8:11 am #

    I have thought about this a lot and I agree with you when you wrote “Red and processed meat consumption is a serious public health concern, and people need to know about the importance of reducing these foods in their diets.” I also agree that there’s no need to publicize every every new study about the hazards of red meat. But I think that there’s something missing in the analysis I see here (and elsewhere promoting the same message).

    For starters, we know FOR CERTAIN that most people who become vegetarian or vegan do so gradually and that most began by ceasing to eat certain species of animals or certain types of meat. Most people did not go veg instantly after learning about animal suffering, envrionmental damage, or even human health concerns. This should be reason enough to suggest that it’s worthwhile to encourage people to “take the first step rather than the last step.”

    Next, in every social movement there is some sort of backlash or regression. Progress is NOT often a straight line moving in one direction. It’s usually circuitous and may involve a sort of ‘two steps forward, one step back’ process. I believe it’s very possible that in the animal movement the shift from eating mammals to eating birds may represent a sort of temporary set-back within a pattern of overall PROGRESS. If we could see the forrest through the trees here we may well agree that the suffering of these birds is a sad fact in the overall societal shift of moving away from harming animals.

    So you’re right that “publicizing every new study about the hazards of red meat doesn’t promote veganism” but that’s a far cry from (a huge logical leap to) “it promotes animal suffering.”

    • Ginny Messina May 22, 2013 at 9:24 am #

      Elaine, yes, it’s true that most people go vegetarian gradually by sequentially cutting out type of animal foods. I’m not inclined to be critical of anyone who starts out by eliminating red meat as they move toward a vegetarian or vegan diet, even if in the process, they are–temporarily–doing more harm than good. Whatever works for them as they move toward a more ethical eating pattern is good.

      I’m talking about the fact that these messages in the media–about how red meat is bad for you but chicken isn’t–are very likely to persuade health-conscious people to eat more birds. It’s a message that encourages consumption patterns that do cause more animal suffering.

      • Elaine Vigneault May 22, 2013 at 10:51 am #

        I don’t disagree that some (perhaps even many or most) people will eat more birds. But as I said before, it’s very possible that in the animal movement the shift from eating mammals to eating birds may represent a sort of temporary set-back within a pattern of overall PROGRESS.

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