Global rise in red and processed meat trade linked to sharp increase in diet-related illness and deaths

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The global rise in the red and processed meat trade over the past 30 years is linked to a sharp increase in deaths and diet related ill health with the UK among the countries worst affected, a study shows.

The global red and processed meat trade increased by more than 148 per cent from 10 metric tonnes in 1993-95 to nearly 25 metric tonnes in 2016–18. While the number of net exporting countries fell from 33 in 1993-95 to 26 in 2016–18, net importing countries rose from 121 to 128.

Diet related attributable death and rates of deaths and years of life lived with disability (DALYs) associated with the global meat trade rose in three quarters of the 154 countries between 1993-95 and 2016-18.

Worldwide, the researchers calculated that increases in red and processed meat consumption, aligned to increases in trade, accounted for 10,898 attributable deaths in 2016–18, an increase of nearly 75 per cent on the figures for 1993-95.

The impact was greatest in Northern and Eastern Europe and the island nations of the Caribbean and Oceania, the analysis published in BMJ Global Health found.

The global meat trade contributed to increases of 55 per cent and 71 per cent, respectively, in attributable deaths and DALYs in developed countries between 1993-95 and 2016-18. The equivalent figures in developing countries were significantly higher: 137 per cent and 140 per cent, respectively, largely as a result of increased demand for meat, prompted by rapid urbanisation and income growth, suggest the researchers.

They conclude: “This study shows that global increases in red and processed meat trade contribute to the abrupt increase of diet-related non-communicable diseases [such as cancers, cardiovascular disease and diabetes]. Future interventions need to urgently integrate health policies with agricultural and trade policies by cooperating between responsible exporting and importing countries.”

Researchers drew on data on meat production and trade from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation from 1993 to 2018 for 154 countries, focusing on 14 red meat items derived from beef, pork, lamb and goat, and six processed primarily beef and pork items, preserved by smoking, salting, curing, or chemicals.

They then calculated the proportions of deaths and years of life lived with disability (DALYs) attributable to diet as a result of bowel cancer, type 2 diabetes, and coronary artery heart disease among those aged 25 and over in each country.