World Health Organisation’s Cancer Agency Warning: Red and Processed Meat Can Cause Cancer

(3BL Media/Justmeans) – The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organisation (WHO), created a furore when it evaluated the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red and processed meat, placing cured and processed meats like bacon, ham and sausages alongside alcohol and cigarettes saying they do cause cancer. Its report states there is enough evidence to rank processed meats as Group One carcinogens because of a causal link with bowel cancer. Fifty grams of processed meat a day—less than two slices of bacon—increases the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18 percent. Eating red meat is also linked to pancreatic and prostate cancer. The IARC published its study in the Lancet Oncology.

The IARC announcement has prompted a furious response from the meat industry, including the scientists it funds, who rejected any comparison between cigarettes and meat. Red meat does have nutritional value and is a major source of iron, zinc and vitamin B12 as well as of protein.

The IARC Working Group considered more than 800 studies that investigated associations of more than a dozen types of cancer with the consumption of red meat or processed meat in many countries and populations with diverse diets. These findings were drafted by a panel of 22 international experts; the most influential evidence came from large prospective cohort studies conducted over the past 20 years.

The WHO said its findings were important for helping countries give balanced dietary advice. The consumption of meat varies greatly between countries, from a few percent up to 100 percent of people eating red meat, depending on the country and lower proportions eating processed meat. Figures suggest 34,000 deaths from cancer annually could be down to diets high in processed meat, compared to the one million deaths from cancer caused by smoking and 600,000 attributed to alcohol each year.

The U.S. meat industry is very influential; beef alone is a $95 billion-a-year business. The North American Meat Institute estimates that, in total, the meat industry contributes about $894 billion to the American economy. The industry here has questioned whether the WHO evidence is substantial enough to draw such strong conclusions, and suggests that it is unrealistic to isolate a single food as a cause of cancer from a complex dietary pattern, further muddled by lifestyle and environmental factors.

In the U.K. Professor Tim Key, from the leading cancer charity, Cancer Research UK (CRUK), responded to the IARC and said, "This decision doesn't mean you need to stop eating any red and processed meat. But if you eat lots of it you may want to think about cutting down. CRUK supports IARC's decision and that there's strong enough evidence to classify processed and red meat as a cause of cancer...having a healthy diet is all about moderation. Overall red and processed meat cause fewer cases of cancer in the U.K. than some other lifestyle factors. By far the biggest risk to your health is smoking; causing nearly one in five cancer cases in the U.K.”

Photo Credit: Wikipedia