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Meat in the post-truth era

Public opinion is increasingly influenced by emotions and options rather than by objective facts, this also called post-truth. This leads to a trend towards sensation. Prof. Leroy (Prof. dr. ir. Frédéric Leroy, Research Group Industrial Microbiology and Food Biotechnology – Department of Sciences and Bio-Engineering Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Brussel) researched the impact of this evolution on the image of meat, that became a pawn in the war between meat-lovers and the anti-meat lobby in the mass media.

1310 news items

Prof. Leroy’s research group recently published a new document about meat’s place in the post-truth era. Debates in mass media about sickness and health formed the point of departure. ‘We based our research on items on MailOnline, internationally speaking one of the most-visited online news platforms. We chose the period from 2001 to 2015, so that the items were all from after the BSE crisis, Prof. Leroy explains. ‘We studied every item with the search term ‘meat’ in the category ‘health’, which meant a total of 1310 new items, that we categorised as positive, negative or neutral.’

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Globally speaking, 52% of the items were assessed as being negative, 35% as positive and 13% as neutral. ‘What was noticeable was the scientification of the articles’, testifies Prof. Leroy. ‘Thus half the articles referred to a scientific source, such as an official health institute, a research institute or a specific scientific study. 18% of the articles referred to for example food editors, natural health practitioners or midwives. 14% of the articles remained vague about their source and in 18% of the articles, no source at all was named.’

Meat stimulates strength, vitality and fertility

‘The articles assessed as being positive could be divided into two large groups. There were the items that reassured users after a crisis. For example BSE, avian flu or the association of red meat with cancer. In addition, the revival of the Atkins diet, in which meat plays an important role, also yielded positive news for meat. Our research then distilled the main topics highlighted in these pro-meat articles, namely strength, vitality and fertility’, Prof. Leroy summarises. ‘In the category strength, the articles often referred to general health and growth, above all focussing on children. In addition, meat also appeared frequently as the basis for good mental health, fitness and vitality. Meat is also often linked to good fertility in both men and women. Finally, the articles also considered eating meat natural and normal.’

Negative items play on fear

‘The interaction of negative news with positive items is remarkable’, Leroy continues. ‘Thus disbelievers seized the Atkins diet to cast meat in a bad light. In addition, a number of food incidents or studies about meat and health gave rise to negative reporting about meat. Above all chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disorder were associated with eating meat, that was even put on the same level as smoking and asbestos. And pro-meat arguments were refuted. Thus, meat is alleged to have a negative impact on the state of mind and fertility. Such articles played to consumers’ fear and were written amongst other things at the request of an animal rights organisation that wanted to sow confusion via the mass media’, Leroy testifies.

The lack of unambiguous scientific studies means that the readers are confused by two totally opposing messages.

Prof. dr. ir. Frédéric Leroy

Meat sector versus veggie lobby: rebuilding confidence versus sowing confusion

‘Each time meat was shown in a bad light, experts appeared to reassure consumers. Dieticians, nutritionists and other experts were quoted to add force to the message. At the same time, the anti-meat lobby continued to communicate intensively. The lack of unambiguous scientific studies means that the readers are confused by two totally opposing messages. In addition, over the years we saw a strong evolution to longer headings with ever more sensationalism’, emphasises Leroy.

What does science say?

‘Many scientific are sloppy in their use of association and risk. After all, an association does not mean that a causal link exists. However, all too often weak associations are abused to cast meat in a bad light. What’s more, not every risk entails a danger’, Leroy continues. ‘That’s why we would do better to speak in terms of absolute danger, instead of relative risks. That would provide a far clearer image of the effective danger of a certain product. For example: IF a causal link did exist between colorectal cancer and meat products, then this means that a relative risk of 18% translates into an increase of the absolute risk that someone will develop colorectal cancer from 5.5% to 6.6%. So, an increase of the absolute risk by 1% no less. This is far less sensational and gives the consumer a clearer picture’, illustrates Leroy. ‘Other studies look only at studies in animals and all too easily make the connection to the effects on human health.’

The danger of cherry picking

‘There are sufficient studies that meat fits perfectly in a healthy diet and there are no significant differences between meat eaters and vegetarians with regard to cancer or cardiovascular disease. The problem is that the mass media, under the influence of the anti-meat lobby, is tempted to cherry pick. After all, they choose only the items and studies that fit their argument and ignore other studies’, observes Leroy. ‘It’s clear that this gives a distorted view. There are a lot of studies that show that meat does not represent an increased risk or even has a positive effect or plays a protective role. Unfortunately, such studies barely get any attention. After all, it is human to aim for a good story, belief or personal interest rather than the truth’, Leroy concludes.

After all, it is human to aim for a good story, belief or personal interest rather than the truth.

Prof. dr. ir. Frédéric Leroy

‘Open the debate!’

The participants of the Round Table remark that the meat sector did not react much to fake news. ‘This is partly due to the fact that in Europe the meat sector is very fragmented. Furthermore, it is easier to tell something wrong than to prove it is wrong’, Leroy reacts. ‘But you cannot cut science off from society. Make sure that you integrate the public’s voice into the discussion or you will lose them. Open the debate!’, Leroy concludes.