Experts are calling for the integration of health policies with agricultural and trade policies after research has found that the global rise in the red and processed meat trade is linked to a sharp increase in diet related ill health.

The research, which was published in the BMJ Global Health journal, drew on data on meat production from 1993 for 154 countries, focusing on 14 red meat items derived from beef, pork, lamb and goat, and six processed meats, primarily beef and pork items.

The researchers found that the global red and processed meat trade has risen exponentially in the last 30 years and wanted to find out what impact this might be having on diet-related non-communicable disease trends and which countries might be particularly vulnerable.

To do this, they calculated the proportions of deaths and years of life lived with disability (DALYs) attributable to diet as a result of bowel cancer, type 2 diabetes, and coronary artery heart disease among those aged 25 and over in each country.

Diet related attributable deaths and DALY rates rose in three quarters of countries

They found that diet related attributable deaths and DALY rates associated with the global meat trade rose in three quarters of the 154 countries between 1993-5 and 2016-18.

The global meat trade contributed to increases of 55% and 71%, respectively, in attributable deaths and DALYs in developed countries between 1993-5 and 2016-18.

The equivalent figures in developing countries were significantly higher: 137% and 140%, respectively, largely as a result of increased demand for meat, prompted by rapid urbanisation and income growth, suggest the researchers.

Between 1993– 2018, island nations in the Caribbean and Oceania and countries in Northern and Eastern Europe became particularly vulnerable to diet-related disease and deaths associated with large meat imports.

The island nations have limited land for meat production, so depend heavily on meat imports, while many of the European countries, such as Slovakia, Lithuania and Latvia, benefited from regional trade agreements and tariff exemptions after joining the European Union in 2003-4, which accelerated meat imports, explain the researchers.

In 1993–5, the top 10 countries with the highest proportion of deaths attributable to red meat consumption included Tonga, United Arab Emirates, Barbados, Fiji, Gabon, Bahamas, Greece, Malta, Brunei and Saint Lucia.

In 2016–2018, the top 10 included The Netherlands, Bahamas, Tonga, Denmark, Antigua and Barbuda, Seychelles, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Croatia and Greece. The meat trade in these countries accounted for more than 7% of all deaths attributable to diets high in both red and processed meat in 2016-18.

The trends in attributable DALYs more or less mirrored those for attributable deaths.

"Urgent need" to integrate health policies with agricultural and trade policies

Attributable death and DALY rates associated with global meat trade fell in 34 countries between 1993–5 and 2016–18. But this was partly due to population growth exceeding increases in meat imports in 24 countries, while domestic meat production increased in 19.

In more than a half of these countries (20) the absolute number of diet-related deaths and DALYs rose in tandem with increased meat consumption between 1993-5 and 2016-18.

This is an observational study, and as such, can’t establish cause. And the researchers acknowledge that many countries import and process red meat items for export, which may have skewed their findings.

Nevertheless, they conclude: “This study shows that global increases in red and processed meat trade contribute to the abrupt increase of diet-related [non-communicable diseases].

"Future interventions need to urgently integrate health policies with agricultural and trade policies by cooperating between responsible exporting and importing countries.”