MLA responds to comments over its handling of the WHO ‘cancer risk’ report

Beef Central, 06/11/2015

MEAT & Livestock Australia, together with other bodies including Cattle Council of Australia, have come in for some stick in articles and comments on Beef Central since the release of the World Health Organisation’s report into cancer risk in red meat and processed meat. Beef Central originally asked MLA for a response, which focused on the dietary aspects of red meat consumption, and which ultimately contributed to comparisons being made between industry reactions in Australia and the US over the report. MLA has this morning sought ‘right of reply,’ which Beef Central is happy to provide…



WHO doesn’t know Australian consumers – MLA keeping red meat on the plate

mla-logo-paddedAS THE marketing body for Australian red meat, MLA’s role is to protect consumer and community support for Australian red meat, and this was the most important element of our strategy in responding to the WHO report. Promoting red meat as part of healthy balanced diet is important to the red meat industry and MLA takes this very seriously.

Our primary focus was to reassure consumers that they should continue to eat red meat, and to give them the reason why.  Beef and lamb are a critical, natural source of iron and zinc, vitamin b12 and omega-3 – essential nutrients to keep the body and brain functioning well.

This was a health story, so red meat required endorsement and clear explanation from health professionals.

Third-party endorsement is always essential as industry commentary can often be viewed with scepticism. Our strategy was to use credible, healthcare experts and media spokespeople to deliver messages that would reassure consumers.

MLA ‘pre-briefs’ media, in anticipation of reaction

MLA also delivered the same messages in speaking directly to over 50 media outlets.

The Financial Review’s article “Australian red meat and sausages part of a balanced diet, industry says”, The Age’s “Saving bacon…. And other red meat”, and the SMH’s “Got the bacon blues? It’s not all over for swine time” (click the links to view: ) are just a few MLA spent time briefing on the issue and carrying our messaging.

More than one third of all health spokespeople reported in the Australian media had been pre-briefed by MLA and not one healthcare professional or expert in Australia instructed consumers to stop eating fresh red meat.

MLA discussed the issue with more than 50 healthcare professionals pre report announcement and provided them with comprehensive notes, messages, and facts on the nutritional berefts of red meat to help reinforce the message that Australians should and could still keep eating fresh red meat.

Our longer-term nutrition strategy, endorsed by the Peak Industry Councils, is to keep red meat on the plate. This is principally achieved by working with, not against, policy makers (like WHO’s committee).

Our Australian Dietary Guidelines are one of the few in the world which recognise the benefits of red meat consumption (and balance this against the risks). Even the WHO report directed consumers back to their country dietary guidelines.

Important not to behave like ‘Big Tobacco’

In order to continue having Australian government support for red meat consumption, it is essential when issues arise we take a balanced and common sense approach and always point back to the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

With the report classifying processed meat, alongside tobacco, it was very important for MLA not to behave like ‘Big Tobacco’ and other companies who have something to hide. Based on past experience, we were unlikely to win any dispute over the science, considering the authority of the WHO and our obvious conflict of interest.

We believe in the superior qualities of Australian red meat and we’re unashamed about doing what we can to protect and promote that.

Attacking report unlikely to reassure Australian consumers

For us in Australia, attacking the report was unlikely to reassure Australian consumers they should continue to eat red meat. We already know consumers are confused and overwhelmed about what they should and shouldn’t be eating.

The 48 hours following the publication of the WHO report, saw significant volume of media coverage.

MLA spoke to approximately 50 media in a 12 hour period, talking through the issue, providing commentary, statements and information on the importance of red meat in Australian’s diet. We also referred media to a spokesperson, arranged through MLA, from the Dietitians Association of Australia, CSIRO, Cancer Council etc.



Further background information:

MLA’s nutrition strategy:

  • MLA has been working closely with policy-makers in Australia and globally since 2008 to address their concerns in relation to cancer and sustainability. Through strategic investment in research, communications and membership of the International Meat Secretariat (IMS) Human Nutrition and Health Committee we have established relevant evidence and networks required to inform policy-makers.
  • Adopting a constructive, collaborative approach has allowed MLA to ensure both the Australian Dietary Guidelines and the Rome Declaration on Nutrition (signed by 170 countries, including Australia) represented red meat accurately and importantly, ensuring continuation of our key message regarding the need for red meat such as beef and lamb, 3 to 4 times a week as part of a healthy, balanced diet to meet iron and zinc requirements.
  • In planning, IMS members adopted a strategy consistent with their domestic situation. Other IMS members, including USA and UK, adopted a more aggressive approach appropriate to their strategic approach in relation to consumer communications and policy-makers.
  • In Australia, MLA lead the response to IARC report. This response being a consistent, positive message based on evidence (the Australian Dietary Guidelines) and one which would reassure consumers.
  • Supporting the Australian Dietary Guidelines provided a unique opportunity to ensure a consistent response by influencers and at the same time, to provide consumers with an objective recommendation against which to evaluate their intake, pointing out that many women and children are not even eating the recommended amount.
  • MLA’s approach allowed us to engage with and inform key influencers and discuss key messages prior to the release of the IARC report and once released, refer media enquiries to credible spokespersons. As a result, our relationship with key influencers, policy-makers and media commentators has strengthened.
  • MLA considers that in order to continue to have Australian government support for red meat consumption, it is essential when issues arise we take a balanced and common sense approach and always point back to the Australian Dietary Guidelines.
  • Ultimately MLA’s strategy is to continue promoting messages about a balanced healthy diet and red meat’s essential place as part of that, 3 to 4 times a week and in this way, to ultimately create a more balanced narrative around red meat’s place in the Australian diet.


Other MLA nutrition activity:

  • Consumers: MLA is running a major nutrition campaign targeting women and their iron needs from mid-Nov 2015. A second activity, specifically targeting mothers and families main meal needs will be developed for the ‘back to school’ period (late Jan/early Feb 2016).
  • Retailers: We are providing retailers with information to help them speak to customers about nutrition in sausages and suggestions for developing healthier options.
  • Longer term, our updated nutrient compositional data on beef sausages (due for publication and which will be adopted by FSANZ) will allow retailers to make ‘reduced fat’ and ‘reduced sodium’ claims. The findings will also be communicated to healthcare professionals to address misconceptions that sausages are a ‘processed meat’ and ‘fatty’.
  • Healthcare professionals: Through our partnership with Australian Doctor and Dietitians Association of Australia, we continue to raise awareness of the red meat recommendation in the Australian Dietary Guidelines.
  • Our new Healthy Balanced Meal Guidelines which reinforce the red meat, 3-4/week message (due for launch this year), have been developed in consultation with over 40 organisations (government, industry, RDCs, NGOs and stakeholders). The guidelines will be adopted by many of these bodies as a practical tool to compliment both the Australian Dietary Guidelines and the Health Star Rating program.



Comments in The Age support MLA’s strategy


How to solve bacon’s reputation problem

When told bacon, ham and pork chops were all produced by the same beast, Homer Simpson struggled to believe such a “magical animal” existed.

But as headlines around the world scream “bacon causes cancer”, it’s safe to say things aren’t so great for the meat industry at the moment.

Branding experts say the best way to combat the World Health Organisation’s warning that the consumption of red and processed meat increases the risk of cancer is to get on the front foot.

Branding expert Con Stavros from RMIT University said his advice for the red meat industry was to approach the cancer link from a positive point of view.

While that might be tough when your product is listed in the same risk group as asbestos and smoking, Dr Stavros said trying to sell the message that meat is “not bad for you” could backfire.

“It would be saying that it’s part of a balanced diet, all in moderation. If you think of it like sunlight, it can be really helpful but also harmful,” he said.

“What you don’t want are analogies that eating these foods is akin to smoking, you want to avoid these at all costs. You don’t want to turn it into the long and drawn out battle.”

There could also be an opportunity for producers of high-quality bacon, salami and chorizo to paint their product in a better light compared to mass-produced meat, Dr Stavros said.

“The people who are making premium sausages could emphasise their ingredients, quality over quantity,” he said.

And while farmers, butchers and bacon lovers are all frantically trying to repair the damage wrought by the cancer warning, consumers may not take much notice anyway.

Consumers tend to need lots of warnings before they change their behaviour, said senior marketing lecturer Paul Harrison from Deakin University.

Changing the habits of smokers took decades of harsh warnings, despite the dire health impacts.

“In the short term it may change the order of the person reading the headline at the cafe,” he said.

“The evidence shows people will change their behaviour when they’re prompted.”

Dr Harrison also said the warnings would be interpreted differently by people who had already made up their minds on the topic.

“Those who worry about thier health, it may well reinforce their desire to make those choices,” he said.

“People who love bacon and have no desire to give it up will ignore it and make fun of it.”

While he thought the WHO warning would have an impact, Dr Stavros said that people were having to absorb a lot of health warnings.

“If you go down the list of things that we can and can’t do, it’s a pretty long list,” Dr Stavros said.


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  1. Kevin Cottrill, 06/11/2015

    The Australian Meat Industry Council reacted immediately on Tuesday 3 November to the WHO Report with an emailed Statement to members and the publication of that Statement on the AMIC web site which is publically available.

    AMIC acknowledges the assistance provided by MLA in the background to the AMIC Statement.

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