IARC assigns cancer risks to red, processed meats

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 26, 2015 - As expected, a World Health Organization body on cancer research has labeled red and processed meat consumption as potentially leading to colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancers.

The official announcement came from WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Monday morning following reports in the British media late last week. The reports were confirmed today in an article in The Lancet Oncology.

“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,” Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs Programme, said in an IARC release. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

Red meat was classified as a Group 2A carcinogen based on evidence that it is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” For the purpose of the study, IARC considered red meat as “all types of mammalian muscle meat,” which includes beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat. Earlier this year, glyphosate - a top herbicide in agriculture - was also placed in this category. According to IARC, there are 75 agents in this category, which also includes diazinon, an insecticide used in fruit production, and the occupation of being a hairdresser.

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Processed meats, however, fall into IARC's Group 1, its most stringent classification. Processed meats referred to any kind of meat “transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation” such as hot dogs, ham, sausages and beef jerky. There are 118 agents in the Class 1 category, which also includes air pollution, gamma radiation and smoking.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack defended the healthfulness of meat when asked by reporters Monday afternoon about the IARC decision. 

"Our dietary guidelines are pretty clear. Lean meat is part of a healthy diet,” Vilsack said. “That's the science that we rely on. That's the science that's being reviewed as the dietary guidelines are being developed, and until such time as the folks who are formulating the dietary guidelines tell me differently, that's the approach we're going to take.”

The existing guidelines say there is "moderate evidence" for a link between processed meats and a higher risk of colorectal cancer and cardiovascular disease. The Obama administration is working on a new version of the guidelines to be released in coming months. A panel of scientific advisers recommended the administration consider environmental factors in making recommendations about meat, but that idea was rejected as outside the scope of the guidelines.


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The IARC action was met in the meat and protein sector with equal parts outrage and eye roll. Betsy Boren, vice president of scientific affairs for the North American Meat Institute, said IARC “tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome.”

“IARC's decision simply cannot be applied to people's health because it considers just one piece of the health puzzle: theoretical hazards,” Boren said in a statement. “Risks and benefits must be considered together before telling people what to eat, drink, drive, breathe, or where to work.”

Shalene McNeill, executive director of human nutrition research with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said currently available scientific evidence “simply does not support a causal relationship between red or processed meat and any type of cancer.”

“No single food has ever been proven to cause or cure cancer,” McNeill said in a release. She added that she recommends eating “a balanced diet, which includes lean meats like beef.”

The National Pork Producers Council added to that chorus, saying IARC's conclusion is “questionable” because the review included “studies that did not have statistically significant results.” NPPC President Ron Prestage said that the key to eating meat, as with any food, is not to overdo it.

“You know, my mother used to say, ‘Everything in moderation,'” Prestage said. “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.”

IARC Director Christopher Wild said the findings back current recommendations to limit meat intake, while at the same time noting its nutritional value.

“Therefore, these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations,” he said.

(Updated 1:30 p.m.) 

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