WHO Ruling On Processed Meat Rankles Industry Groups

A new report from the World Health Organization's cancer-research agency could be bad news for bacon and sausage fans, as it found that processed meat is very likely a carcinogen. Although the ruling mostly gives red meat a pass, meat industry groups were quick to attack the findings.

A new report from the World Health Organization’s cancer-research agency could be bad news for bacon and sausage fans, as it found that processed meat is very likely a carcinogen. Although the ruling mostly gives red meat a pass, meat industry groups were quick to cast doubt on the findings.

You’ve probably figured out by now that cured meats such as bacon aren’t a cure for cancer. In fact, they may be a cause.

A new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that bacon—as well as other cured and processed meat—is nearly as consistently carcinogenic as smoking, arsenic, asbestos, and alcohol.

The meat industry, however, isn’t buying that argument and is currently pushing back against the report by the United Nations-backed health body that argues there’s sufficient evidence that processed meat is dangerous enough to put into the top tier of carcinogens. The report, published by WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), found that the real risk comes from eating a large amount of processed meat.

“For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” Dr. Kurt Straif of the IARC Monographs Program explained in a news release [PDF]. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

To its benefit, the meat industry appears to have dodged a bullet on red meat, which IARC found to be just “probably carcinogenic to humans,” with only limited evidence supporting that eating red meat causes cancer in humans.

“They Tortured the Data”

Understandably, the ruling was not welcomed with open arms by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), both of which took aim at the research that IARC used in reaching its conclusions. NAMI Vice President of Scientific Affairs Betsy Booren, Ph.D., was especially skeptical of the findings.

“It was clear sitting in the IARC meeting that many of the panelists were aiming for a specific result despite old, weak, inconsistent, self-reported intake data,” Booren said in a news release. “They tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome.”

Dr. Shalene McNeill, Ph.D., R.D., the executive director of human nutrition research at NCBA, was quick to highlight the fact that IARC’s report did not have full consensus among its 22 researchers, something she said weakened the group’s case on red meat.

“Cancer is a complex disease that even the best and brightest minds don’t fully understand,” McNeill said in a statement from NCBA. “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. The opinion by the IARC committee to list red meat as a probable carcinogen does not change that fact. The available scientific evidence simply does not support a causal relationship between red or processed meat and any type of cancer.”

Cancer Group Backs WHO

Among cancer researchers without ties to the meat industry, IARC’s ruling appeared to be welcome. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), a U.S.-based nonprofit group, noted that the WHO report seemed to support AICR’s own research.

“For years AICR has been recommending that individuals reduce the amount of beef, pork, lamb, and other red meats in their diets and avoid processed meats like bacon, sausage, and hot dogs,” AICR Vice President of Research Susan Higginbotham, Ph.D., R.D., said in a statement. “This advice grows out of our expert reports and the Continuous Update Project, our ongoing review and analysis of the global scientific research on how diet, physical activity, and weight affect cancer risk.”

AICR was quick to emphasize, however, that although processed meat was ranked in the same category as smoking by IARC, that doesn’t necessarily mean processed meat is as unhealthy as smoking; rather, “these classifications reflect the strength of the evidence behind them, not the level of risk. We hope that media coverage of this new report is careful to consider the appropriate real-world context,” the group states.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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