Doctors call on government to withdraw ‘misleading’ campaign urging people to eat meat and dairy

Official claims ‘disingenuous’ and ignore evidence on health and sustainability, according to Doctors Association UK

Jane Dalton
Friday 07 June 2024 19:10 BST
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Doctors’ groups have called on the government to withdraw a “misleading” campaign encouraging people to eat meat and dairy, warning it contains “a high level of misinformation”.

The Let’s Eat Balanced drive is run by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), which is funded by farmers and other food suppliers and comes under the wing of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The annual campaign targets people trying to cut down on their intake of meat and animal products, with adverts promoting beef, lamb and dairy.

New-born lambs: the taxpayer-backed campaign promotes eating meat
New-born lambs: the taxpayer-backed campaign promotes eating meat (Getty Images)

The campaign website claims that beef, pork, lamb and dairy are natural sources of protein and vitamin B12, and that British meat and dairy are “among the most sustainable in the world, and are produced to world-class food and farming standards”.

“In a world filled with dietary trends and fads, our campaign embraces an inclusive perspective on achieving a balanced diet,” it says.

But the Doctors Association UK and the Plant-Based Health Professionals (PBHP) UK organisation have warned that the campaign’s aims are “at odds with established scientific evidence” on healthy diets, and have called for the government to retract it.

A letter from the two organisations highlights links between red meat and cancer and type 2 diabetes, warning: “Your health claims are disingenuous.”

A screenshot from the campaign website
A screenshot from the campaign website (AHDB)

The letter, from Dr Matt Lee, Doctors Association’s sustainability lead, and Dr Shireen Kassam, director of PBHP, warns Defra and the board that the campaign “flies in the face of the scientific evidence and the government’s own guidelines, which clearly demonstrate the need to shift away from animal farming and transition to a plant-based food system”.

It points to a modelling study by the charity Office of Health Economics that found a “plant-based by default” approach could save the NHS £74m a year, and highlights estimates that if England alone adopted a completely plant-based diet it would save the NHS £18.8 billion a year.

The letter says: “No other intervention can deliver such significant health benefits alongside cost savings and environmental benefits.”

The letter is also endorsed by the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, and nine other nutrition and health experts and doctors. Together, the organisations represent more than a million health professionals.

The World Health Organisation has classified processed meats including ham, bacon and salami as carcinogens – something known to cause cancer. Eating processed meat increases the risk of bowel cancer, it says, and even just two rashers of bacon a day pushes up the risk.

Cancer Research UK and the NHS agree that eating a lot of it raises the risk, and advise people who eat more than 90g of red and processed meat a day cut down to 70g or less.

US researchers also say eating red meat three times a week increases the risk of early death by 10 per cent.

Paul McCartney told the European Parliament meat causes climate change
Paul McCartney told the European Parliament meat causes climate change (AFP via Getty Images)

The authors write: “Replacing animal protein with plant sources of protein is associated with significant improvement in health outcomes, including reduced risk of premature death. Yet the Let’s Eat Balanced campaign has links to suggestive ‘health benefits’ whilst ignoring the guidance to limit meat intake, particularly red and processed meat.”

The government campaign says UK milk’s carbon footprint is nearly a third lower than the global average, and that of beef and lamb is almost half.

But the letter says: “Your claims regarding sustainability are also misleading.”

It cites the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC) as saying the average UK diet is not compatible with a sustainable global food system.

“Actively promoting meat to those who are reducing meat consumption flies in the face of public health and sustainability targets and action,” the letter goes on.

“We call on the AHDB to wholeheartedly embrace this difficult but necessary step, by retracting the campaign to promote increased consumption of meat and dairy using misleading and un-evidenced marketing.

The AHDB says red meat contains protein and minerals
The AHDB says red meat contains protein and minerals (Getty Images)

The letter writers point out that limiting or avoiding animal-sourced foods cuts the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity and certain cancers.

“Although meat is a source of protein, zinc, iron and vitamin B12, these nutrients are easily obtained from a well-planned plant-based diet, as recognised by the British Dietetic Association amongst other dietetic and nutrition institutions,” they add.

An AHDB spokesperson said: “Let’s Eat Balanced is a fully evidence-based campaign communicating the nutritional and sustainability benefits of British red meat and dairy in a manner that aligns with the government’s dietary guidelines, as outlined in the Eat Well Guide. We sincerely hope members of the Doctors Association UK are aware of the Eat Well Guide and are using these guidelines to support their patients’ needs.

“Anyone advocating a totally global plant-based diet as a panacea to climate change ignores the fact the realities are far more complex. Solutions lie in a balance of sustainable plant and sustainable meat and sustainable fish production along with a balanced plate approach to diets and portion sizes.”

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