The European Commission has softened its stance on phasing out the promotion of red and processed meat in Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, and the latest change has received a mixed reception from stakeholders.
A previous draft of the plan, obtained by EURACTIV last week, read that the EU promotion policy for agricultural products would be reviewed “in view of phasing out promotion of foods linked with cancer risks, such as red and processed meat.”
However, this reference to meat has been attenuated in the final text, unveiled on Wednesday (3 February), to say that the revamping of the promotion policy for agriculture products has to be “in line with the shift to a more plant-based diet, with less red and processed meat and other foods linked to cancer risks.”
The EU’s promotion policy for agri-food products was established in a 2014 regulation and consists of campaigns aiming at enhancing the competitiveness of the EU agricultural sector both in the single market and in third countries.
The promotion of agri-food products and quality schemes eligible for support is funded by the Commission through annual work programmes adopted after consultation with stakeholders.
This promotional policy is currently under review and the public consultation phase with stakeholders was launched at the end of January. The Commission is expected to come up with a proposal for overhauling the current scheme in the fourth quarter of 2021.
Campaigns promoting meat and meat products constitute a significant portion of these programmes, with €138.7 million having been spent between 2016 and 2019, or 24% of the total disbursement for the EU’s promotion policy.
The European Commission has recently come under fire for supporting the consumption of meat products through this promotional policy while backing a shift toward more plant-based diets in its pivotal food policy, the Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy.
Some NGOs and Green lawmakers have criticised the fact that some of these campaigns are bordering on openly advertising meat consumption, using slogans such as ‘become beefatarian’ or project names like ‘pork lovers‘.
This is not the first time the Commission changes tack on meat, which has become a sensitive topic in the EU agenda.
Last May, a draft version of the Farm to Fork strategy specified that the Commission would propose to “stop stimulating production or consumption of meat” but this reference did not make it to the final strategy.
Asked about the latest change in the cancer plan, the EU’s Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides denied that a step backwards has been taken, saying the Commission has not dropped the reference on meat and continued to support healthy diets.
“We do know how the consumption of red meat can impact on health and on cancer and this is in the plan,” she said.
In the plan, the Commission makes a reference to the evaluation of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a body of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which states that consumption of red meat is probably carcinogenic to humans while consumption of processed meat can cause colorectal cancer.
This evaluation has been criticised by other researchers and even IARC’s own experts and remains an open issue in the scientific debate
According to Frédéric Leroy, a professor of industrial microbiology and food biotechnology at the Vrije University in Brussels, the link between meat intake and diseases needs to be carefully inspected.
He said that even the WHO/IARC panel looking into the colorectal cancer link had declared that ‘other explanations for the observations (chance, bias or confounding) could not be ruled out’ while ‘consumption of red meat has not been established as a cause of cancer.’
The Lancet medical journal has recently said that deaths attributable to red meat consumption still accounted for 3/4% (306,800) of all deaths in Europe.
Environmental NGOs and the consumer association BEUC welcomed the renewed push to promote plant-rich diets but blamed the Commission for having watered down its initial proposal to phase out EU meat ads.
“What’s the point of EU plans to beat cancer or tackle climate change if it continues to promote food like meat that makes these problems worse?” commented Sini Eräjää, Greenpeace EU agriculture campaigner.
Contacted by EURACTIV, the agriculture coordinator for the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), Herbert Dorfmann, did not agree with such limitations for meat promotion, which he considers purely ideological.
“The promotion regulation is intended to mainly support farmers and create markets for agricultural products in Europe and abroad,” he told EURACTIV.
Dorfmann said that meat products are part of the European heritage and linked to preserving the European landscape
“What are we going to do with stable grasslands? If there is no meat production and no milk production on it, they become useless,” he said.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]