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July 15, 2005

Researchers Discuss Health Implications of Meat Production and Consumption

In an article published in the latest edition of the journal Public Health Nutrition, Polly Walker, MD, MPH, Robert S. Lawrence, MD, and others from the Center for a Livable Future (CLF) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reviewed the health, environmental and societal ramifications of industrialized meat production and nutrition of a high-meat diet. The article was written at the request of the journal’s editors.

An accompanying review by Australian researchers Anthony J. McMichael and Hilary J. Bambrick noted that the CLF paper “breaks important new ground,” in part, because “their exploration of the spectrum of health consequences extends to considering the collateral damage to the environment (‘externalities’) and the resultant health risks.” The reviewers concur with the authors that the discussion of both components—the supply (meat production methods) and the demand (rates of meat consumption)—are relevant to global health.

“For millions of people threatened with malnutrition, improving access to nutrient-rich animal source foods is an easy way to improve nutritional status,” said Walker. “But meat is also high in saturated fat. In light of the high rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus and some cancers in high meat-consuming countries, an important public health challenge is to provide adequate amounts of protein and essential nutrients without also causing over-consumption of saturated fat.”

The prevalence of industrial methods of producing animals for food in the United States and increasingly throughout the world is, in part, to satisfy the growing demand for meat. However, the production methods themselves pose many public health threats. The article cites the extensive use of pesticides, feed that includes animal tissues, arsenic and antibiotics as well as significant waste disposal issues that affect industry workers, rural communities and consumers of the meat products.

The solutions offered by Walker include encouraging sustainable agricultural practices; working to implement the USDA Dietary Guidelines that encourage diets lower in meat and saturated fat and higher in vegetables; creating a regulatory framework that captures the externalities of current meat production, such as environmental, social and health impacts; ending commodity subsidies that cripple local agricultural economies around the world; and raising awareness of food production issues among public health communities.

Walker and her colleagues conclude that public health professionals should lead in defining the connections between food and the health of the public, the health of the food system and the health of the ecosystem.—Donna Mennitto