World Health Organization links processed meat, cancer

World Health Organization links processed meat, cancer

Global organization whose aim is to identify carcinogens lines up research and targets processed meat, but also tags red meat in the process.

The coverage is widespread with the World Health Organization speaks. That groups International Agency for Research on Cancer is claiming a link between processed meat, noting your risks are elevated if you consume as little as 50 grams per day (about 1.8 ounces).

Much of the coverage also notes that IARC looked at the link between red meat and cancer, but noted there was little consensus on the matter. The IARC, which earlier this year linked the crop protection product glyphosate to cancer, reviews a wide range of products, foods and other items looking for correlations between use/consumption and cancer.

Processed meats got dinged by the World Health Organization as a cause of colorectal cancer. Unprocessed red meat is also being linked (though less thoroughly) to cancer. (Photo/Joe Reedle, Getty)

Linking specific items, like a food item or chemical, is problematic, as Shalene McNeill, PhD, RD, notes in a response to the IARC report called “Science does not support international agency opinion on red meat and cancer.” She notes in that report that “cancer is a complex disease that even the best and brightest minds don’t fully understsand.”

But that’s not stopping general media from reporting that the IARC conclusion is fact. For example, over at NBC News, the headline is Ham, Sausages Cause Cancer; Red Meat Probably Does, Too, WHO Group Says. The certainty of the report’s headline belies the fact that IARC could not reach total agreement on the red meat question.

The National Pork Producers Council issued a statement that IARC says the relative risk red meat causing cancer is low; though also acknowledging that processed meat can be a cause of colorectal cancer and a postible cause of gastric cancer. The same report says the red meat is a probable case of colorectal cancer and a possible cause of pancreatic and prostate cancer. NPPC also adds that IARC “previously has classified as carcinogens such things as sunlight, alcoholic beverages and being a barber.”

Related: Cancer group returns ‘possible carcinogen’ finding on 2,4-D

The association also claims that IARC’s conclusions were based on “relatively weak statistical associations from epidemiological studies that were not designed to show cause and effect.” In many of the studies, cancer risks were only associated with high levels of consumption.

The IARC findings will impact food demand and could impact red meat consumption. NPPC quotes David Klurfield with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, which review epidemiological studies on cancer and meat: “Most observational studies report small, increased relative risks [of cancer]. However, there are many limitations of such studies, including inability to accurately estimate intake, lack of pre-specified hypotheses, multiple comparisons, and confounding from many factors – including body weight, fruit/vegetable intake, physical activity, smoking, and alcohol – that correlate significantly either positively or negatively with meat intake and limit the reliability of conclusions from these studies.”

If you want to check out the latest reports, and how traditional media are looking at the issue, look at these search results from Google.

The North American Meat Institute has reacted to the findings as well, noting that the “IARC Meat Vote is Dramatic and Alarmist Overreach.” The group notes that the findings “defy common sense and numerous studies showing no correlation between meat and cancer and many more studies showing the many health benefits of balanced diets that include meat.”

This issue, and the rising number of items IARC links to cancer, will have more consumers on guard than ever before.

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