What is a public relations practitioner in that industry to do?
We saw how industries from tobacco to soft drinks reacted -- they did their best to cast doubt on the research. In fact, Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for Science in the Public Interest, claims, “The playbook of every industry under attack is to instill doubt in the evidence.”
So how should the meat industry respond to the World Health Organization's recent meta-study, which according to the Wall Street Journal, concluded processed meats like bacon and salami are "carcinogenic" and fresh meats like steak and pork chops "probably cause cancer."
The ethical principle that should guide public relations people in this case is to ensure customers have all the information they need to intelligently interpret the research and guide their behavior.
Not incidentally, that means dealing with sensationalized headlines (New York Post: "OMG! Bacon causes cancer.") that suggest eating processed meat is as dangerous as smoking a cigarette or sucking on a diesel exhaust.
Interestingly, the New York Times' report on the research had all the elements of an ethical response:
It put the research in context, quoting third party experts with no axe to grind, and explaining the World Health Organization's categorization system. For example, it pointed out that although research put processed meat into the same category as smoking and air pollution, its actual risk was "relatively small." Most importantly, it said experts not involved in the report advised people to "moderate" their consumption of processed meats.
No meat industry spokesperson is likely to suggest its customers eat less of their product. But it wouldn't be out of the question for them to advise people not to over-indulge in it. The alcohol industry has been doing that for years.
Nor would it be unethical to refer reporters and even customers to experts who can provide context and advice. But it would be unethical to refer anyone to experts who are far outside the mainstream of scientific opinion, not to mention publicizing their reports.
And it would be perfectly ethical to highlight the benefits of eating red meat in moderation. Red meat is, after all, a good source of protein and vitamins. It might even be in the industry's own interests to conduct research into the mechanisms making processed meats a health risk -- is it the nitrates or something else?
But it would be unethical if the sole purpose of the research were to cast doubt on the consensus findings that eating large quantities of processed meat is unhealthy.
In general, an ethical response would focus on what's best for customers and society at large.
Not an easy task. But one that deserves great thought and attention. That's where the real beef is.