Searching for interesting angles on the issues affecting animal agriculture, meatpacking and food production can take some strange twists and turns.

For example: What started out as a routine review of a Yahoo Health story about game meat — how trendy, how healthy, how au courant — ended up mired in the mud of one of the more egregious attacks on the American diet that’s ever been published.

This abrupt reversal started with a reference to the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s recent report implicating consumption of processed meats with an increased risk of certain cancers, and then touting wild game as the work-around for the 98% of the population unwilling to embrace veganism. The Yahoo reporter, predictably, stated that the IARC had “proven” that since processed meats caused cancer, it was time to switch to bison, venison and elk.

While admitting that the average consumer has little to no chance of obtaining those meats from animals that weren’t raised on farms — which would seem to require some modification of the phrase “wild game.”

From there, the reporter indulged in a couple paragraphs’ worth of detail about the abundance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in game meat and the positive effect those nutrients have on cholesterol (lowering it), blood pressure (reducing it) and joint health (improving it).

Only all the carnivorous hosannas came with a strange disclaimer: Even with wild game, nobody should eat more than 18 ounces a week, the article stated.

For those of you scoring at home, figure maybe four nights a week at dinner and a couple lunch occasions featuring meat — at a minimum — that’s just three ounces per meal. Even less-per-serving if more meals contain meat.

But wait — aren’t all those omega-3s and 6s supposed to be good for you? What’s with the 18-ounce limit? If wild game is so healthful, why the arbitrary ceiling on consumption?

And here’s where the story takes a turn. Eighteen-ounces-a-week isn’t an amount reflective of health authorities’ best-case recommendations for optimal dietary well-being. Instead, 18 ounces is simply the smallest amount that a bunch of anti-industry, pro-vegetarian advocates, the Washington, D.C.-based American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).

Along with the usual nutritional platitudes about avoiding sugary drinks, reducing salt consumption and limiting alcoholic beverages, the institute laid out a dietary game plan that was at odds with conventional wisdom, including:

  • Eat mostly foods of plant origin, like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes
  • Limit how much red meat you eat and avoid processed meat.
  • Avoid smoked, cured or salted meats
  • Eat less than 18 ounces of beef, pork or lamb per week

Notice that last item: Less than 18 ounces a week.

Where did this so-called nutritional wisdom come from? Not from any mainstream scientists. Not from any independent researchers, and certainly not from any government agencies, such as USDA, FDA or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

No, the restriction on eating meat was based on a vegetarian activist’s controversial study of diet and longevity in China, as detailed in a 2004 “The China Study,” written by T. Colin Campbell, a professor emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University, and his physician son Dr. Thomas M. Campbell II.

Although the AICR attempted to draw a line between its “sensible” cancer-prevention recommendations, and the extreme diets touted by the elder Campbell, the characterization of The China Study research on the institute’s website couldn’t be more supportive.

“This kind of radical [vegan] diet change, done carefully and well, will certainly improve overall health,” statement reads. “Keep in mind that these diet changes [Campbell documented] not only eliminated meat and dairy, but also eliminated fast food, highly processed foods and sugar-laden drinks. In many cases, these changes led to a healthier weight. And a healthy weight = lower cancer risk.”

The obvious question here is the same one that crops up in analyzing any epidemiological study purporting to associate vegetarian diets with dramatic health and longevity outcomes: How do you separate the impact of limiting meat and dairy with the impact of eliminating fast-foods, processed foods and sugar-laden soft drinks?

Answer: You can’t.

Nor can you properly identify the role that exercise, heredity, lifestyles and environmental factors play in overall well-being. Human health is either supported or compromised by a complex, interactive mix of variables, whose interactions are virtually impossible to segregate.

And it’s equally problematic to leap from game meat to veganism, with only an 18-ounce stopover along the way.  

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.