Meat is the New Tobacco: Exporting a Dangerous Habit
The meat industry is following the lead of the tobacco industry, selling overseas what will no longer sell in the United States.
As cigarette smoking declined in the United States several decades ago, tobacco giants looked to foreign markets. In 2010, the United States exported more than 60 billion cigarettes. And earlier this year, a U.S. trade deal was proposed that would make it even easier for U.S. tobacco companies to export cigarettes.
Like tobacco, meat eating is falling out of favor in the United States. Reaching a peak in 2004 at 201.5 pounds of meat per person per year, U.S. per capita meat consumption slid to 188 pounds by 2010—a 6 percent drop in six years. As Americans choose more plant-based meals, meat and dairy producers are sending cholesterol overseas.
In 2012, the United States exported 1 million metric tons of beef, up from 655,920 metric tons in 2006. Pork exports rose from 1 million to 2 million metric tons in the same time frame. Milk exports surged from 24 million to 63 million metric tons.
One consequence: Worldwide, heart disease is now the number-one cause of death. China’s diabetes rates are skyrocketing from an influx of pork and other Western foods says PCRM’s Jia Xu, Ph.D. In Mexico, Joaquin Carral, M.D., has found that even in towns without electricity, paved streets, or schools, American junk food is rapidly making inroads. And U.S. fast-food companies are infiltrating countries from India to Zambia.
Smithfield Goes to China
On May 29, 2013, things took another turn for the worse. C. Larry Pope, president and chief executive officer of Smithfield Foods, announced that his company would be sold to the Shuanghui International Holdings. That the world’s largest pork producer—located in the United States—would now be owned by a Chinese company meant only one thing: China’s demand for U.S. meat was about to explode.
In response, the Physicians Committee petitioned the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to block the sale, which PCRM says threatens China’s—and America’s—health. Despite this dire warning, on Sept. 6, 2013, CFIUS granted clearance for the sale.
Importing Smithfield’s sausage, ham, bacon, and other processed pork products will only increase China’s per capita pork consumption, which had already surpassed all other countries at 84 pounds in 2012. Studies show that daily consumption of processed pork products increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 21 percent.
In June, a study in The Lancet reported that colorectal cancer rates are on the rise in China and that an increasingly unhealthful diet accounts for an important share of cancer cases. The same processed meats also exacerbate diabetes. A review in the journal Diabetologia found that people who regularly eat processed meats increase their risk for diabetes by 41 percent. One million Chinese died from diabetes in 2011. Today, more than 90 million people in China suffer from diabetes. By 2030, 130 million will be diagnosed with the disease. A new study published in JAMA found that the prevalence of diabetes in China has now surpassed the United States.
As China’s diet erodes under foreign influences, the next domino to fall may be dementia. The saturated fat found in dairy products and meats is associated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Smithfield’s pork products will also likely inundate China with disease-causing bacteria, many of which are antibiotic-resistant. A recent Consumer Reports study found the bacteria Yersinia in 69 percent of pork products tested. Yersinia already causes an estimated 96,000 cases of human disease annually in the United States. The study also found a variety of other bacteria in up to 7 percent of the samples, the majority of which were resistant to antibiotics.
In July, Physicians Committee president Neal Barnard, M.D., sent a Chinese-language letter to the National Health and FamilyPlanning Commission of the People’s Republic of China to warn it of the consequences of the Smithfield purchase.
“I urge you to think about the big picture,” wrote Dr. Barnard. “The Smithfield sale will only facilitate an increasing dump of one of America’s unhealthiest products into your country that, unfortunately, is poised to follow America’s race into obesity, diabetes, and shortened lifespan.”
The health of Americans and America will also suffer from the Smithfield sale.
“The proposed sale will subject this country to increased pollution resulting from the ramped up production—necessary to meet China’s growing pork demand—at Smithfield’s farms and production plants,” wrote Dr. Barnard to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.
People living near Smithfield Foods filed nearly 600 complaints in July against the company for polluting creeks. Waste from hog farms has been implicated in the contamination of North Carolina waters with the microorganism pfiesteria, which killed more than 1 billion fish. The widespread use of antibiotics on factory farms has led to a proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, making it harder to treat infections among humans. The Smithfield deal means America gets the cruelty and pollution, while China gets the diabetes and heart disease.
Fast Food’s Foreign Foray
China and the rest of the world have also experienced the painful health effects of the sharp rise in American fast-food chains. McDonald’s now has 34,565 restaurants in 119 countries. In 2014, it will open its first restaurant in Vietnam.
Bird flu and safety violations slowed sales in China for Yum Brands Inc., which owns KFC and Pizza Hut, but the company plans to continue its expanding sales of chicken and pizza.
“When I was growing up, there was no fast food, but now there is McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut,” says Dr. Xu. “The older generation doesn’t like it. It’s the younger generation and their kids who frequent fast-food restaurants.”
There are now 4,260 KFC restaurants and 826 Pizza Huts throughout China. Yum! China expects to open 700 more restaurants in 2013. In 2012, Yum! added 138 new restaurants in India, including 80 KFCs. And it has 1,000 restaurants in 14 African countries, including Nigeria, Kenya, and Zambia, and in 2013, intends to expand to Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.
Corporations aren’t the only ones pushing unhealthful foods on the rest of the world. The U.S. government is, too.
A report from the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University looked at the dramatic increase in exports of U.S. subsidized agricultural products to Mexico—including beef, pork, and poultry. Between 1990 and 2008, animal product exports from the United States to Mexico skyrocketed: Beef and veal exports increased 278 percent, pork 707 percent, and poultry 363 percent.
These findings may help explain a recent report from the United Nations which found that obesity rates in Mexico have surpassed those in the United States: 32.8 percent of Mexicans are obese, compared to 31.8 percent of Americans.
Dr. Carral, who gives nutrition advice in the Physicians Committee’s Spanish-language Kickstart program, grew up in Mexico and witnessed the insidious invasion of the Western diet firsthand.
“Mexicans may not think they are eating like Americans,” says Dr. Carral. “But we added more and more cheese and chicken to our meals. Then we added more fried foods and topped those with extra meat and pork.”
Beneficial U.S. Exports
There is, however, good news for world health. It’s estimated that about 5 percent of Chinese—more than 50 million people—are already vegetarian. The Physicians Committee’s 21-Day Healthy Challenge is working to increase that number with meat- and dairy-free versions of traditional Chinese recipes. Other Kickstart programs start every month. Those geared toward India and Spanish-speaking countries also continue to help reverse the Western diet’s toll on the world. And in September, Kickstart Japan launched with recipes and resources available in Japanese.
The Physicians Committee’s government affairs department also continues to work with Congress to shift government subsidies away from meat and dairy producers. This will benefit the United States, as well as countries that receive U.S. exports.
Thanks to these and other Physicians Committee campaigns, more and more people across the globe are unfortunately learning that it really is true: Meat is the new tobacco.