In an embarrassing turnaround, ministers issued new scientific advice that the largest meat eaters, consuming 140 grams or more a day, should cut down but that those eating the average amount of 90 grams a day need not change.
People eating less than the average amount should not reduce their consumption because they may not get enough iron and other nutrients.
Last September, ministers published advice that even average meat eaters should "consider a reduction", after an extraordinary row among the members of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy (Coma) which had been preparing a report on the subject for more than two years. That announcement triggered a storm of protest from the beleaguered meat industry which claimed that the advice had no scientific basis.
It has emerged that scientists on the committee could not agree the precise wording of the report leaving Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, in the awkward position of having to change the advice.
A panel set up by Coma to examine the link between meat eating and colon cancer concluded that the people consuming over 140 grams a day should cut down.
However, just before publication, Professor Philip James - a member of Coma, but not of the panel, and the instigator of the Food Standards Agency - warned ministers that the advice was confusing and weak.
Professor James is also a member of the World Cancer Research Fund, which recommended an upper limit of 80 grams of red meat a day in a report released on the same day as the Coma advice last year. He argued that if the "danger" level was set at 140 grams a day that could encourage average meat eaters consuming 90 grams a day to increase their consumption.
Mr Dobson, worried about being seen as soft on consumer issues, halted printing of the report and ordered the committee to re-draft its advice which it did in the absence of the panel.
The result was much stronger advice which was issued as a press release on 25 September but without the full report.
Problems arose when the panel, led by Alan Jackson of Southampton University, was asked to ratify the new advice that had been issued in its absence.
It refused to do so because, it said, it was not justified by the scientific evidence. This led to the new, modified, version published yesterday with the full report.
The report, "The Nutritional Aspects of the Development of Cancer", looks at all aspects of the diet and recommends eating more fruit, vegetables and fibre and avoiding getting fat. It also warns that high doses of vitamin and mineral supplements could be risky and recommends avoiding beta-carotene supplements which have been linked with an increased risk of lung cancer.
It says the finding on beta-carotene "raises the possibility that a change in the usual balance of caretenoids in the diet might lead to potentially adverse perturbations in their absorption, metabolism or function. Such findings caution against the widespread use of moderate to high-dose micronutrient supplements, which cannot be assumed to be without adverse effects."
Sir Kenneth Calman, Chief Medical Officer, said: "Diet is a matter of personal choice but it is important that people have the information they need to decide what they want to eat."
THE Coma recommendations apply to red meat (beef, pork, lamb) but not to poultry and the quantities quoted are the cooked weight (meat loses weight during cooking). People eating more than 140 grams a day (5oz) - about one in six of the population - should cut down. One hundred and forty grams of cooked meat is approximately 200 grams raw.
Ham sandwich 30g
Bacon (two rashers) 50g
Pork pie (small) 60g
Quarterpounder hamburger 90g
Roast beef (three slices) 90g
Spaghetti bolognese 90g
Sausages (3-4) 140g
Steak (medium 6-7 oz) 170g