Processed Meat Warning Highlights Need for Expert Health Communications

Written by Tara Mulvany

I took a mid-term family break in Copenhagen last week. It’s a great city, famed for its pastries, lager and Danish bacon. All of which I had every intention of indulging in.  So the timing of the WHO’s statement ranking bacon, ham, sausages and other processed meats as group 1 carcinogens, was unfortunate to say the least.

Now I’ve never considered bacon to be a health food, but for it to be placed in the same category as tobacco, asbestos and arsenic did seem to be a bit far-fetched. That obviously didn’t stop the world-wide media picking up on what was a very tasty story, which resulted in dramatic headlines, the likes of ‘Processed Meat is as Bad as Smoking’, which was published in the UK’s Daily Express.

By the time I had returned to Ireland the story had changed direction with the WHO saying that their statement had been misinterpreted by the media and that it was a ‘shortcoming’ of the classification system that processed meats had been placed in the same category as tobacco.

The crux of their clarification was that the WHO was advising a reduction of processed meat in the diet to reduce the risk of cancer, and colorectal cancer in particular, but it was not saying that people should stop eating the foods altogether.

This was a much more palatable message and made me wonder why they couldn’t have just said that in the first place. By the weekend, the story was still making global headlines but the angle had shifted to ‘Consumers Confused over Cancer Risk.’

The clarification was also likely to be cold comfort to the meat industry world-wide whose product had been linked to cancer in online, broadcast and print media reports around the world for a number of days.

It highlights the need for expert communications when delivering complex information related to human health in particular. There are many factors that need to be carefully considered in releasing such information, including language, tone, context and timing. It’s also crucial to examine the impact and potential fall-out of the message on key stakeholders and to assess the risk factors associated with that.

In this case key stakeholders not only included the meat industry, but health boards, food safety and standards authorities, representatives of the medical profession etc who would have to allay consumer concerns and potentially adjust national consumption recommendations for red meat.

What’s remarkable in this case is that even an organisation of the calibre and professional resources of the WHO, who are experts in health communication, seemed to have misjudged the impact of their own message and did not foresee that it could be misinterpreted or misunderstood by the media.

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