Red Meat And Processed Meats Likely Cause Cancer

The World Health Organization just announced that processed meat is carcinogenic, and that red meat is "probably carcinogenic"

WHO declared processed meats as dangerous as cigarettes and alcohol — (Photo: Dreamstime Photo Illustration: Diana Quach/Vocativ)
Oct 23, 2015 at 5:04 PM ET

The World Health Organization just classified processed meats (bacon, deli meats, hotdogs) as “carcinogenic to humans” and all red meats as “probably carcinogenic to humans”, in light of multiple studies that suggest these popular meats are linked to colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer. Their findings are due to appear in Volume 114 of the IARC Monographs.

Here’s an excerpt from the journal Lancet Oncology:

Overall, the Working Group classified consumption of processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” (Group 1) on the basis of sufficient evidence for colorectal cancer. Additionally, a positive association with the consumption of processed meat was found for stomach cancer. The Working Group classified consumption of red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2A). In making this evaluation, the Working Group took into consideration all the relevant data, including the substantial epidemiological data showing a positive association between consumption of red meat and colorectal cancer and the strong mechanistic evidence. Consumption of red meat was also positively associated with pancreatic and with prostate cancer.

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Rumor circulated on Friday that IARC would make this controversial move, and we covered it. Below is Vocativ’s analysis of the rumors, which have now been confirmed with the official release of the IARC report:

The Daily Mail, citing anonymous sources, claims that the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer plans to designate processed meats such as bacon, salami and hotdogs as Group 1 carcinogens (compounds known to cause cancer in humans) while designating all other red meats as mere Group 2A carcinogens (probably carcinogenic).

The IARC decision would put bacon in some strange company:

It wouldn’t be unprecedented, however. Previous IARC recommendations have placed both diesel fuel and the popular insecticide glyphosate on the list of Group 1 Carcinogens—and, in doing so, stoked international fears of traffic fumes and GMOs. Still, many of the IARC’s more than 1,000 carcinogenic compounds are the sort of things we eat, drink, breathe or engage in mindlessly. While we’re terrified of eating insecticides, IARC considers them less dangerous than smoking, drinking or even working as a painter.

To be fair, the red meat scare has some decent science behind it. Studies have shown that eating more than 18 ounces of red meat per week significantly increases your risk of colorectal cancer and that processed meats are at least as dangerous. Besides cancer, red meat has recently been linked to shorter lifespans and heart disease, and in 2014 the IARC cited several ominous studies linking processed meats to cancer.

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Still, it’s unclear whether red meat actually causes cancer. Studies showing “links” between meat and cancer are notoriously unreliable, for effectively the same reason that we’re not sure any food causes any disease. There are a lot of strange chemicals in our diets, we’re constantly exposed to sunlight (the ultimate carcinogen) and we inhale toxic fumes in cities and on farms.

Although self-serving, Shalene McNeill of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association put it best: “Cancer is a complex disease that even the best and brightest minds don’t fully understand,” McNeill told Reuters. “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.”

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When it comes to food, however, people get extra nervous—and the meat industry knows that. If the IARC goes after red meat, it’ll likely kick off an era of warning labels on hotdog packages and annoying health freaks lecturing us on the evils of bacon. We may even see an aggressive meat tax, or an age limit on bacon consumption, or restrictions on how much beef you can purchase. Sure, it’s a stretch. But the United States has legally limited other Group 1 carcinogens in similar ways. Will D.A.R.E one day teach kids to Say No To Deli?

Ultimately, it won’t matter whether or not red meat actually causes cancer. If the IARC chooses to classify processed meats as Group 1 carcinogens, the masses could immediately flee from bacon and lunch meats.

“It’s our 12-alarm fire,” Betsy Booren of the North American Meat Institute told Meatingplace after the IARC’s preliminary report came out in 2014. “Because if they determine that red and processed meat causes cancer—and I think that they will—that moniker will stick around for years.”

“It could take decades and billions of dollars to change that.”