The tobacco and fossil fuels industries have long relied on a series of clever messaging tactics to cover up their harmful impacts and impede change that would threaten their profits. Exposés like Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway’s Merchants of Doubt have brought these maneuvers, which often involve sowing confusion and mistrust, to light.
Now, a first-of-a-kind study looked into the messaging of the UK meat industry. It found that the industry largely relies on tactics from the “well-thumbed” playbooks of other harmful industries to spread misinformation and quell doubt.
The meat industry is implicated in many social, ethical, and environmental harms. Analysis has associated consumption of processed red meat with an “increased risk of death from any cause,” according to the Lancet. Foodborne illnesses and antibiotic resistance linked to factory farming also threaten human health.
Meanwhile, in 2021, a UN Environment Programme-backed report highlighted that animal farming has a “disproportionate impact” on biodiversity, with the global food system being the main driver of biodiversity loss. The meat and dairy industries are also major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
Unsurprisingly then, the world’s leading climate scientists have called for a reduction in meat-eating and animal farming. Food policy proposals under consideration in the UK also include curtailing meat consumption.
According to researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, however, this is not the message the UK meat industry is peddling about its products. Their study, which was published in the journal Health Policy, found that instead, the industry is framing discussions about the health and environmental impact of meat in a way that is favorable to its own interests.
Four main framings
The researchers reviewed 26 public documents by six representative bodies of the meat industry, in which they discussed the environment or health. Researchers chose to focus on these bodies, such as the National Farmers Union (NFU), rather than individual companies, as that provided a “broader view of the sector.”
According to the study, the industry documents contained four main framings. They characterized the health and environmental harms of meat as still being “open for debate” and indicated that people don’t need to cut their consumption in order “to be green.” The documents also suggested that most individuals don’t eat enough meat to “need to worry” about negative health impacts. On the contrary, they argued that people should keep eating it “to be healthy.”
The study found, for example, that the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board’s (AHDB) documents regularly suggested that the “average intake of red meat is not high” and argued that eating too little of it could be risky to health. It also characterized meat’s benefits as “known” and its harms as only “potential.”
In terms of the environment, the researchers said the industry’s message was that “reducing livestock numbers would not have a positive impact.” The bodies did concede that animal agriculture can “harm the environment,” but they framed these harms as “not a given” and emphasized its benefits. Moreover, the NFU and ADHB characterized British animal farming as among the most “sustainable” in the world.
The researchers found that all of the industry bodies cast doubt on the harmful impacts of meat, variously associating evidence of those impacts with confusion, uncertainty, and untrustworthiness. In contrast, some declared themselves as “objective, independent or evidence-based,” according to the study.
The paper didn’t speculate on whether the industry uses the tactics “intentionally,” only noting that they align with “classic” framing devices used by harmful industries. Attempting to shape people’s understanding of evidence and positioning themselves as a well-intentioned part of the solution to the problems they’ve helped create are features of these industries’ playbooks.
Lead author Dr. Kathryn Clare told Sentient Media that the meat industry’s response to the paper has “echoed” these framings too, which she described as “illuminating.” As the Telegraph reported, NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw responded by characterizing scientific “arguments” on the subject as “nuanced, complex and widely debated” and affirming that “British red meat” is “sustainable.”
A powerful voice
Clare said that the study’s findings reflect those in an investigation into the “climate-washing” of the meat industry by DeSmog. But she asserted that more research is needed, particularly into “the impacts of these tactics on consumer and policymaker behavior.”
Understanding the impact the tactics have on policymakers is pressing in the UK context. As the study pointed out, industry bodies like the NFU have “access” to ministers at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, while the AHDB is a non-departmental public body sponsored by that ministry.
The meat industry has a “powerful voice,” the study stated. Clare hopes the paper motivates further scrutiny and encourages both policymakers and the public to consider taking its messaging “with a pinch of salt,” she said.
Tracy is an environmental journalist based near London, UK. Her background is in creative writing, and she's currently a staff writer at The Canary and freelances elsewhere.