Red Meat Causes Cancer…Now What?

By now you’ve probably heard about the World Health Organization’s report that dooms us meat-eaters to cancer. Well, kinda. The report actually says eating processed meat like hot dogs, ham and bacon raises the risk of colon cancer and that consuming other red meats “probably” raises the risk as well.

Probably? What does that even mean? It means the risk is low enough the average person doesn’t need to worry too much about it, but the study is still making waves.

From a rhetorical perspective, I really don’t like seeing such a vague word like “probably” tied to a word as terrifying as “cancer,” especially in a scientific study.

Say what you want about the report, it’s out there. So what is a beef or processed meat producer to do?

First, we have to get inside the minds of the consumer. These consumers are bombarded every day with conflicting health information. Let’s take sugar substitutes for example. In the 1990s, we heard sugar will make you fat and we should use Sweet’N Low. Then we learned Sweet’N Low’s main ingredient, aspartame, will give us cancer, so we switched to Splenda. Then we heard Splenda will kill us, so now we’re on the Stevia/Truvia train with – you guessed it – real sugar making a big comeback. What’s next?

In my opinion, the evidence presented in this study is not nearly compelling enough to create behavior change. Especially when, on the flip side, you have a 105-year-old woman who swears eating bacon daily is the key to her long life.

We can back up this opinion using the Cialdini Core Motives Model, which tells us there are only three motives of persuasion, and they must go in order:

  1. Build Relationships
  2. Reduce Uncertainty
  3. Motivate to Act

In order to get to step three, we have to accomplish steps 1 and 2. For the purposes of this study, while the WHO didn’t provide any specific guidelines on meat consumption, we can assume the desired result from publishing this information is lower consumption of beef and processed meat – motivating action.

Because the WHO failed to build a relationship with consumers or reduce their uncertainty (the word “probably” inherently implies uncertainty), it’s doubtful they have met the burden to motivate the public to act. We’re seeing evidence of that in social media commentary:

Second, we have to consider what consumers want to hear from red meat and processed meat producers. The North American Meat Institute has given producers some air cover by coming out proactively and calling the study bull.

In fact, there may be other studies that refute this evidence, but I wouldn’t advise individual producers to enter the fight on the merits of this study – that’s for the industry to handle. For food brands who receive customer questions about the study, the message back should simply remind customers that with everything in our diet, not just meat, moderation is the key. Consumers pay more attention to their food sources these days and should decide what’s right for their own dietary needs.