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Is Red Meat the New Tobacco?

Is Red Meat the New Tobacco?

Picture of Martha Rosenberg

If red meat had a publicity agent, he or she would be fired by now. Publicity agents are supposed to plant positive news about their client and kill any negative publicity. But ever since James Garner, the face of the “Real Food for Real People” beef campaign, suffered a heart attack in 1988, there has been nothing but bad publicity about red meat.

Consider this succession of damaging events.

Mad cow disease surfaces in the US in 2003, with three cows diagnosed with the fatal disease by 2005 and the sources never found.

Chairman and CEO of McDonald’s Corporation, Jim Cantalupo, suffers a fatal heart attack at a company event in 2004.

Charlie Bell, Cantalupo’s replacement as McDonald’s CEO, is diagnosed with colon cancer two weeks after taking office and also dies.

Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, books unfriendly to the meat industry, stay on the New York Times bestseller list for years.

Video of abused “downer” cows sparks the largest meat recall in US history, tarring the National School Lunch Program in 2008. Big Meat reacts to undercover leaks by trying to criminalize farm videos.

Both Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton flirt with meat-free diets; Clinton’s seems to have stuck.

Martha Stewart, the doyenne of taste and nutrition, broadcast a vegetarian Thanksgiving show in 2009. What?

More than half of Americans cut back on meat consumption after 2008 recession. The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture cannot unload the unwanted product and tries to increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) meat allowances to get rid of “the oversupply.”

A world outbreak of swine flu in 2009 is linked to pig farms, according to some news sources. Big Meat beseeches press to call the disease the H1N1 flu instead of Swine Flu.

More than 24 workers in pork slaughterhouses in charge of pulverizing pork brains for overseas markets develop a debilitating, possibly permanent nerve condition called progressive inflammatory neuropathy. Health departments are forced to assure public they won't catch PIN from eating pork.

Nutritionists caution Americans are get too much protein not too little, to chagrin of Big Meat which uses alleged "protein deficiencies" in marketing

Medical, cancer and heart groups warn people to cut back or eliminate red meat.

Government warns about dangers of bacteria from undercooked meat on cutting boards and utensils and heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from overcooked meat.

How was your decade?


Nor has the bad news for red meat stopped. This week scientists at the Cleveland Clinic announced a new explanation of why it may contribute to heart disease. The real culprit, the scientists suspect, is “a little-studied chemical that is burped out by bacteria in the intestines after people eat red meat. It is quickly converted by the liver into yet another little-studied chemical called TMAO that gets into the blood and increases the risk of heart disease,” reports the New York Times.

Is red meat soon going to be like cigarettes? A habit so stigmatized that people try to hide it and employers and insurance companies overtly discriminate it? Doctors, public health officials and animal lovers may laud the trend -- but the publicist for red meat is surely going to be fired. 

Martha Rosenberg's new book is Born with a Junk Food Deficiency.

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