The American Meat Institute has issued a statement refuting the claims from a new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The report claims that eating large amounts of red meat can increase the risk of dying from heart disease or cancer by as much as 21 percent.

The statement reads: “A new study in today's Archives of Internal Medicine tries to predict the future risk of death from cancer or cardiovascular disease by relying on notoriously unreliable self-reporting about what was eaten and obtuse methods to apply statistical analysis to the data. This imprecise approach is like relying on consumers' personal characterization of their driving habits in prior years in determining their likelihood of having an accident that kills them in the future. It has a high likelihood of giving erroneous conclusions.

"Red and processed meat continues to be a healthy part of a balanced diet and nutrition decisions should be based on the total body of evidence, not on single studies that include weak and inconsistent evidence and stand in contrast to other research and to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010," said Betsy Booren, AMI Foundation Director of Scientific Affairs.

Beyond the major weakness of this being an epidemiological study which uses survey data – not test tubes, microscopes or lab measurements--the researchers method of collecting and analyzing their data is highly inaccurate. The information in the report indicates that estimates of red and processed meat intake were only 27 - 35% accurate versus actual measurements. The researchers also inserted estimated data where an actual survey measurement was missing and also stopped updating the dietary information once participants reported a diagnosis. All of these factors could have significant impacts on the results.

"Too often, epidemiological findings are reported as 'case closed' findings, as if a researcher has discovered the definitive cause of a disease or illness. But epidemiological studies look at a multitude of diet and lifestyle factors in specific volunteer human populations and use sophisticated statistical methods to try and tease out relationships or associations between these factors and certain forms of disease. This method of comparing relationships has many limitations which are widely recognized by researchers in this field. More often than not, epidemiological studies, over time, provide more contradictions than conclusions," Booren said.

Booren concluded by saying, "All of these studies struggle to disentangle other lifestyle and dietary habits from meat and processed meat and admit that they can't do it well enough to use their conclusions to accurately recommend people change their dietary habits. What the total evidence has shown, and what common sense suggests, is that a balanced diet and a healthy body weight are the keys to good health."

In a phone interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Dean Ornish, clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, notes that the study does not recommend avoiding red meat entirely.

“It’s not all or nothing,” said Ornish, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study. “To the degree you make red meat more of a treat or more of a condiment and substitute other things for it, you’re going to look better, feel better, lose weight and gain health.”

Sources: American Meat Institute Foundation, Bloomberg Businessweek