Ag Policy Blog

Researchers Create Headlines Tying Processed and Red Meat to Cancer

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Headlines came out early Monday. "Processed Meat Causes Cancer; Red Meat Probably Does, Too."

"Hot dogs, bacon and other processed meats cause cancer, World Health Organization declares."

I was watching the discussion at a hotel breakfast room while eating a couple of fairly bland sausage patties.

The report comes from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, (IARC) an arm of the World Health Organization. This is the same group that labeled glyphosate as carcinogenic earlier this year.

The researchers came out with a paper classifying processed meat as "carcinogenic to humans" due to evidence involving colorectal cancer and an association with stomach cancer.

The researchers then stated that consumption of red meat --- beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, or goat meat --- as "probably carcinogenic to humans" with a probable association to colorectal cancer and a possible association to pancreatic and prostate cancer.

The increased risk from eating red and processed meats is small and the details of that get a little blurred in the researchers' report.

The analysis stated that high red meat consumption, the analysis focused on studies looking at daily consumption of red meat at 300 grams to 420 grams -- 10.6 ounces to 14.8 ounces, daily. Thus, effectively, it comes back to just how much red meat do you eat every day.

The analysis also drew its conclusion on processed meats -- hamburgers, hotdogs, sausage, bacon and the like -- with "few human data" actually available to provide a full picture. Nonetheless, researchers felt confident there was enough other data to go with their findings.

In a quote from the report, "On the basis of the large amount of data and the consistent associations of colorectal cancer with consumption of processed meat across studies in different populations, which make chance, bias, and confounding unlikely as explanations, a majority of the Working Group concluded that there is sufficient evidence in human beings for the carcinogenicity of the consumption of processed meat. Chance, bias, and confounding could not be ruled out with the same degree of confidence for the data on red meat consumption, since no clear association was seen in several of the high quality studies and residual confounding from other diet and lifestyle risk is difficult to exclude. The Working Group concluded that there is limited evidence in human beings for the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat."

The U.S. meat industry has been anticipating the results and had several observers actually at the meetings in France where the scientific working group met earlier this month.

“You know, my mother used to say, ‘Everything in moderation,’” said National Pork Producers Council President Ron Prestage, a veterinarian and pork producer from Camden, S.C. “She was a very smart woman, and the smart people out there know you don’t eat a pound of anything every day. So take this IARC report with a grain of salt, but not too much salt because that would be bad for you.”

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association came out with a stronger statement rejecting the committee's findings. “Cancer is a complex disease that even the best and brightest minds don’t fully understand,” says Shalene McNeill, PhD, RD and executive director of human nutrition research for 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.”

The issue does come back to the debate around the U.S. Dietary Guidelines that are still being formed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services. The advisory committee involved in those guidelines late last year declared people should eat less red and processed meats.

You can bet there will be a push by opponents of meat to use this study as the basis to demand some action by the federal government, despite the low risk involved.

And I better not ever hear that the IARC is doing a study on coffee.

Follow me on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN.


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Daniel Carpenter
10/27/2015 | 9:53 AM CDT
Ummmm, hate to burst your bubble Chris, but they already have coffee listed as a 2b carcinogen. Possibly carcinogenic.
Curt Zingula
10/27/2015 | 6:28 AM CDT
Watching Culver's add on to their parking lot so they can serve more butter burgers, I'd say taste rules. Also, I'm wondering when the media will inform consumers that leafy greens are high in nitrates?!
Bonnie Dukowitz
10/26/2015 | 7:07 PM CDT
I think I will keep on eating the fatburgers with extra mayo and fries. With a little luck, I'll have the big one.
Raymond Simpkins
10/26/2015 | 3:25 PM CDT
So does living cause cancer. If you live long enough you will have cancer
10/26/2015 | 9:59 AM CDT
Probably, might woulda, coulda shoulda. I might have monkeys fly out of my bum this afternoon, only time will tell. Did I get this wrong that they just viewed data and came up with a conclusion? I have said for years that the best place for activists trying to halt animal husbandry is to go to work for the organizations that come up with stuff like this. True or lies, doesn't matter, they say it is bad enough times and the people will believe them.