Bacon Sandwiches and Cancer
On 31st October 2007 the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF, a charity/umbrella organisation “supporting research into the role of diet and nutrition in the prevention of cancer”) issued a press release to advertise their comprehensive report on the influences of nutrition and physical activity on cancer, “Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective”.
As well as the actual report and the press release, the WCRF also released 10 “recommendations for cancer prevention”. The report itself was produced by an international panel of experts and consisted of extensive literature reviews of studies on cancer.
One of the findings of the report was that red and processed meat increased the chances of bowel cancer, where one of the specific recommendations made on the press release was that “People should not eat any more than 500g of red meat a week” (original emphasis). In this finding, the report supports conclusions that were arrived at in the previous report from the same organisation, although this time the authors write that the evidence has become even more conclusive. Most news organisations have picked up the story on the 31st or 1st, after several days of prereporting on what “a major new report to be published by the WCRF” is about to conclude.
The precise way the story was reported varied slightly between “Cancer linked directly to obesity” (Channel 4), and“obesity worse for cancer than smoking” (Daily Mail , although this misleading headline was subsequently changed to “Is anything safe to eat? Cancer report adds bacon, ham and drink to danger list”).
The Sun reported the story by singling out “bacon sandwiches” (“Bacon butty cancer risk” ), and the bacon sandwich, probably because it is a stereotypically English comfort food has subsequently become the point of discussion of the report on several other news and comments pieces, for example on the Guardian's “Comment is Free” site. A lot of the media coverage of the report has focused on the meat section, to the exclusion of the report's messages on other foods and physical exercise and their positive as well as their negative contributions to cancer.
Reactions to the story in the subsequent commentary (i.e. op-eds and blog comments on newspaper websites) focused almost exclusively on complaints that scientists won't let us eat anything now, that they'll discover that everything causes cancer and we may just as well starve to death, or that surely there will soon be a story about how read meat is good for you.
The press release was in fact headed: Excess body fat causes cancer, which signifies what the organisation itself found was the main and most newsworthy result of the report. The section on red and processed meat was further down in the press release under the heading “other findings of the report”. Although most news reporting initially concentrated on several aspects of the report, the public debate that followed, in the op-eds and the commentary eventually focused almost exclusively on the meat results, encapsulated by the Sun's symbolic use of the bacon sandwich to convey the report's message.
The main controversy over the report as seen in the media debate concerns the recommendations of the report. Criticism on this dimension can sensibly be made due to the fact that the health recommendations do not themselves immediately follow from the evidence as shown in the report, which the authors of the report acknowledge themselves (see above). The interesting aspect is the framing of this controversy as one inherent in the science itself (i.e. “study shows that we should avoid red meat”), rather than, as admitted in the report itself, an interpretation of the science.
Therefore, while there is an interesting public debate to be had about the quality of the scientific evidence, and what possible recommendations can and should follow from it, the debate has focused fairly quickly on “whether there will be anything left for us that is safe to eat”, followed by some fairly predictable conclusions by commentators that scientific health advice is slightly patronising and ridiculous, and not really worth following.
At first glance this story can be seen as one of the depressing cases where the media mis-report a science story and then later in the comments pages take the science to account for things it never said in the first place, as the original news reports were misrepresenting the science. However, in this case the media reports were not really misleading, because (as shown in the "issues" section) the report, the press release and the comments made by some of the experts involved were inconsistent as to the strength with which the evidence supports the recommendations (with the report itself being more careful about stressing the subjective dimensions of the recommendations than the press release), and even to the precise implications of what these recommendations should actually mean (with the provided expert quote leaning more towards precautionary abstinence than the press release and the report itself). Here there is therefore a case where some of the negative press of the report was probably partly a result of the way the story was communicated by the WCRF.