W.H.O. Report Finds Processed and Red Meats Carcinogenic

Processed meat is apparently as cancerous as smoking cigarettes, so no more jamon Tabacerico.

By Alison Miller, University of Texas at Austin


This Monday, the World Health Organization fired a metaphorical shot heard ‘round the world by publishing a report that linked processed and red meats to increased risks of cancer.

Their findings elicited squeals of dismay from bacon-lovers everywhere and smug ejaculations of “I told you so!” from vegetarians. Facebook and Twitter, always ready-made battle grounds for any mildly contentious issue, were immediately thick with snarky remarks flying from both defiant carnivores and sanctimonious herbivores.processed-meats-bad-for-humans-722x406Things like this remind me of OJ Simpson’s trial, and not just because of the morbid overtones in both OJ’s courtroom and the WHO’s report. No – more because they’re both excellent examples of how comically easy it is to find a scientific expert to support any viewpoint or story.

In OJ’s trial, for example, the jury received two different sets of evidence from persons deemed experts in leatherworking and all things glove-related – one insisting that it was entirely possible for the bloody glove to have shrunk, another claiming the opposite to be true.

In the same way, the WHO’s announcement that a causative relationship existed between red/processed meats and cancer caused a veritable swarm of scientists, nutritionists and oncologists to emerge buzzing from the woodwork, all of them insisting that the correlation was either falsified or so insignificant as to be negligible. Of course, as many if not more professionals then stood up in defense of the research.

And still, the vegetarians gloated and the meat-lovers wailed.

It became hard, as I waded through the tide of ‘related articles’ that had been posted on Facebook and other social media sites, to separate fact from propaganda. Luckily, my bachelor’s degree in Biology generally helps to give me a dim indication of when I’m being fed false scientific information, but it’s a vague warning at best, especially if the subject matter in question is a highly specific or obscure topic.

For people without background knowledge in science, it’s even harder to discern a lie or exaggeration when they come across one – they’re made to rely almost entirely on the author of the material to translate information faithfully and accurately. In my experience, it’s almost always best to go directly to the source of the research, decipher it as best you can (with the help of Google for unfamiliar words or topics), and move on to secondary sources from there. It’s a considerably more time-consuming process, but you’re a lot less likely to swallow false information without realizing you’ve done so.

The Basic Facts

The World Health Organization says that red and/or processed meats can put individuals at a higher risk for cancer.

The Specific Facts (according to the original report)

The release (which is remarkably brief, for all the hullabaloo it’s caused) came from a subgroup of the WHO called the International Agency for Research on Cancer (or IARC).

The IARC treats red and processed meats as two separate categories.

Red meat is classified as probably carcinogenic to humans (according to the WHO’s classification system for carcinogenic substances, this puts red meat in Group 2A[1], the same group to which inorganic lead compounds belong). This finding is based on limited evidence.

Processed meat is classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1, the same group to which tobacco smoke belongs to). This finding is based on sufficient evidence.

Both red and processed meats correlate mainly with colorectal cancer; however, red meat is also associated with pancreatic and prostate cancers.

The article quotes Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs Program, as saying, “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. In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

It’s important here to note the distinction between red and processed meats. The findings (which are based on the results of an amalgamation of previously conducted studies) indicate that processed meat in general is more dangerous than red meat.

So, the article indicates that you should probably stay away from all processed meats as much as possible, including non-red meats that have been processed. On the other hand, red meat that has been responsibly sourced and minimally processed probably isn’t going to kill you as long as it’s consumed in moderation.

Furthermore, as any scientist or doctor will tell you, cancer is a funny, fickle disease. It’s highly specific to the individual in which it grows. Cancer is spawned by a melting pot of environmental factors, genetics, and sheer bad luck.

While certain genetic markers and exposure to certain substances (such as cigarette smoke and radiation) can make someone more predisposed to developing cancer, there’s never any way to say for sure whether that person will or won’t get it. Cancer seems to exist to confound expectations; while it is predictable to a certain extent, it’s also been known to attack healthy children and bypass lifelong chain smokers.

In the hailstorm of the immediate controversy caused by the IARC’s report, it’s been easy to overlook its inevitable long-term implications. If at least some of the population takes the message to heart, we can probably expect to see a noticeable (if slight) reduction in the consumption of red and processed meats.

If widespread enough, this shift in dietary patterns will likely be mirrored by an increase in business for farmers of organic produce and manufacturers of organic meat. These speculations are based on the assumption that the IARC’s findings will push people who are on the fence to adopt a vegetarian diet, and that those people who continue to consume red meat will begin to seek out more wholesome, humane, and sustainable options. In an ideal world, the WHO’s findings will spark a nationwide discussion of how we harvest and process our meat and bring about the reform of unethical factory farming practices.

Despite the fact that the risk of cancer remains small, we can only hope that the information released by the WHO will prompt individuals to re-examine their ideas about meat consumption and how they relate to food in general. While there are a lot of really compelling arguments for vegetarianism, this isn’t the place to discuss them. For now, it’s enough of a step in the right direction to know that the recent publication will make more people aware of our cultural tendency to distance ourselves from our food.