Something kept haunting me from a question-and-answer session I took part in with 600 high school students on food issues a few weeks ago. And it stopped me from accepting the April 21 front-page headline Meaty Diet Raises Health Risks at face value.
There's something twisted in the way that's framed, I kept muttering to myself.
My encounter with the students at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts was exhilarating. They were attentive, knowledgeable and good-humoured, and they had 90 minutes of non-stop questions. But there was a pattern to the questions. They were almost all anxious questions about eating disorders, obesity, long-term health and environmental problems.
The lesson they had learned all too well was that food is a problem. As a foodie, I was upset to see that edibles have so successfully been depicted as just another item with a long list of things to be worried and fearful about and not as a source of joy, health, personal skill development or rewarding career to be appreciated.
As a policy junkie, I was troubled to see that food itself is considered a problem, while the social and economic mismanagement of it is overlooked. This is the breeding ground for eating disorders. The otherwise innocent April 21 headline caught me while I was in that frame of mind.
The story under the headline covered a California conference of the American Association for Cancer Research. One study tracked 200,000 men over seven years and showed that heavy eaters of processed red meats had a 67 per cent higher risk of pancreatic cancer. Another, based mainly on animal research, showed reductions in breast cancer rates among offspring raised on oils rich in essential fatty acids from fish and flax. "Diet matters, Mom," said Elaine Hardman, one of the lead presenters.
The release of these reports follows the January publication of an article in the prestigious Journal Of The American Medical Association on a 19-year study of about 150,000 older adult Americans. It showed that daily eaters of red and processed meats suffered 30 to 40 per cent higher risks of bowel and rectal cancer respectively. Michael Thun, head of epidemiological research at the American Cancer Society, was the lead author. An editorial by Harvard professor Walter Willett, urging a switch to fish, poultry, nuts and beans, accompanied the lead article.
The tables have definitely turned in this debate. Health-based allegations about meat, once limited to a counter-culture of "health food nuts," are now written by leading authors in leading journals and supported by the conventional cancer societies. The forthcoming May issue of the American Journal Of Preventive Medicine carries a report by Erica Frank of Emory University envisioning a future in which McDonald's "one hundred billion sold" refers to soyburgers, a move that could reduce fat consumption by a billion pounds while boosting colon-sweeping fiber by a billion pounds.
Opponents of the new dietary consensus are mostly found in such far-right quarters as the Center for Consumer Freedom, the Fraser Institute, the Cato Institute and Bible Life Ministries, which joins this "spiritual battle" against the "worldly myth" of nutritionists. "Better dead meat than no red meat": the slogan for a new Cold War. This is the intellectual company that North American government agriculture and health departments keep when they give the lion's share of agricultural subsidies to mainstream beef farmers, refer to proteins under food guide ledgers as "meat and meat alternatives" and prohibit street-food vendors from selling much more than processed red meats and ice cream.
The political and economic elite are way out of step with the scientific elite.
That said, it's still no easy thing to get to the meat of the cancer matter. A few things are uncomplicated. Meat has no fiber or roughage, which explains why heavy meat eaters suffer gut rot. "Shit happens" only in their fondest dreams, and constipation creates conditions for cancer.
After that, it gets complicated. First, it's not meat, but red meat, and fatty red meat at that, that gets fingered in most studies. So these studies aren't good news for fish or chickens. Second, it may well be processed red meats, not red meats, that raise cancer risks, according to a giant 2001 study tracking half a million Europeans.
Third, many European studies indicate that small portions of red meat, enjoyed with generous portions of salads and fruit, raise few risks. Fourth, the 2005 U.S. publications mentioned above all contain evidence that moderate red meat eaters face negligible risks if they keep their weight down, exercise and quit smoking.
Such complications tell us that food is as much an anthropological as a physical science and that food-cancer and food-disease connections need to be linked back to human agency.
The portrayal of meat in the new U.S. medical discourse reminds me of the common Western prejudices against people in Arabic and Asian countries, outlined in Edward Said's classic study, Orientalism. All Orientals, from the Mideast to Japan, were lumped in one group - just as all red meats and red processed meats are lumped in one category, with no need to specify grilled, boiled, baked, organic, fast food or any other characteristic pertaining to production or preparation.
But food, especially meat - notwithstanding the stereotypes linked to "man, the hunter," who supposedly relied on a wild meat diet in the wild - is not just a physical entity. It has been socially and economically constructed. Many red meats are laced with hormones and antibiotics, and all animal meat carries a heavy burden of pesticides, since animals eat about five to 10 pounds of pesticide-sprayed grains for each pound of meat, and because toxins migrate toward fat in all animal (including human) bodies. Even the fat level of meat has been socially determined, since fat varies with animal diet - high on grains and low on grass, the traditional animal staple before factory livestock became the norm.
This suggests that the healthfulness of food is a social issue, subject to as much human control and agency as the commitment to give up "bad" food for "good." Once these dimensions of human control are clarified, it's my hope that we will not only limit meat, but cease to blame the foods themselves - whether meat or plants - for our health problems, gain a wider sense of the realm of human choice and associate food, as all nature, with hope, not dread.