A week after the WHO report linking red meat and processed meat to cancer, the news media is still full of nervous denials from the meat industry, and that makes me think the new guidance is putting downward pressure on meat consumption. One of the frequently repeated comments by meat industry representatives is that the WHO report is not telling people to stop eating meat entirely, and that’s accurate as far as it goes. More to the point, though, the new guidance strongly implies that the average affluent consumer in countries like the United States and Brazil would do well to reduce meat consumption by more than half. That kind of reduction is what the meat industry is afraid of, and it’s the lifestyle change they won’t be talking about when they talk to the press. If 10 percent of consumers reduce their meat consumption by half, which looks likely enough in the latest reports, that translates to a 5 percent reduction in demand for meat, a change large enough to close some of the marginal meat factories. For the meat industry, that is a bigger change than they face when a small number of consumers, such as those who have learned they are at risk for heart disease or diabetes, drop meat entirely.
An individual can make a 50 percent reduction in a narrow category of consumption without quite noticing the change. An example of this is seen in desktop computers, where many users who previously replaced equipment after 3 years are now waiting 6 years without consciously considering the length of the delay. Meat has little nutritional significance, so a consumer can cut back by quite a lot without feeling the effects. Some observers think the WHO report might mark a turning point, and that consumers may now collectively cut back meat consumption by as much as 4 percent a year over a period of years without any noticeable fuss or overt discussion along the way.