As international health experts prepare to publish a report on potential cancer risks linked to red and processed meat, industry groups are bracing for a damaging blow to consumer confidence.
The World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) gathered health experts in France this month to discuss available research on such meat, with a view to classifying them on its scale of cancer risks. The conclusions will be published on Monday.
The review has prompted lobbying efforts from meat industry representatives who fear a headline conclusion about a likely cancer risk could tarnish the image of certain types of meat, just as previous IARC recommendations did with diesel fumes and the common weedkiller glyphosate.
A report on Friday in British newspaper the Daily Mail saying the IARC would give processed meat the highest carcinogenic risk rating and red meat the second-highest one, drew immediate criticism from such groups, in particular the US livestock sector.
"If this is actually IARC's decision it simply cannot be applied to people's health because it considers just one piece of the health puzzle: theoretical hazards," said Barry Carpenter, President of the North American Meat Institute.
The IARC said it would not comment on media reports, but would publish the outcome of its review at 1000 GMT on Monday, at the same time as a report to be published in scientific journal The Lancet Oncology.
The American Cancer Society declined to comment on the media reports, but a spokesman told Reuters the group has long recommended that people limit their consumption of red and processed meats.
Shalene McNeill, executive director of human nutrition research at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said the available scientific evidence does not support a causal relationship between any type of red or processed meat and any type of cancer.
"Cancer is a complex disease that even the best and brightest minds don't fully understand," said McNeill, who attended the IARC meetings earlier this month. "Billions of dollars have been spent on studies all over the world and no single food has ever been proven to cause or cure cancer."
Producers says meat provides essential protein, vitamins and minerals as part of a balanced diet. Red meat includes beef, pork and lamb, but not poultry.
Total worldwide meat consumption reached 310 million tonnes in 2013. This was up more than a quarter on 2003, supported by emerging market growth, with poultry's share increasing, data from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation show.
Business analysts said a cancer link in the scientific review may have a limited impact on industry sales and prices.
"I think people know you're not supposed to eat as much red meat as you do," said Liberum food industry analyst Robert Waldschmidt.
"(But) not everyone recognises that some of these smoked and cured meats are bad for you, i.e. carcinogenic. I think on smoked, cured stuff it will have some negative impact."
The IARC already recommends avoiding processed meat and limiting red meat intake, and health experts in Britain advise limiting processed meat consumption for bowel cancer prevention.
But while there was a statistical association between eating processed meat and bowel cancer, "the size of the effect is relatively small, and the mechanism is poorly defined", said Ian Johnson of Britain's Institute of Food Research.