Agency needs to take scientific approach in making evaluations

Farmers could have been forgiven if they wondered recently, “what next?” after hearing that a United Nations panel had declared glyphosate “probably carcinogenic.”

Well, now they know.

The same group that made the controversial designation for the popular herbicide earlier this spring now plans to evaluate the likelihood that red and processed meat are carcinogenic.

The discussion is scheduled to happen at an Oct. 6-13 meeting in Lyon, France, organized by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Red and processed meat are among the 78 products and activities that an IARC advisory committee recommended for further study last year.

The comprehensive list includes the usual suspects, such as breast implants, lead and tobacco smoking, as well as common household items such as salt and coffee. Human activities include shift work, welding and poor oral health.

The inclusion of genetically modified organisms is particularly noteworthy and should be ringing alarm bells for farmers.

The committee also categorized the topics by level of importance. Interestingly enough, red and processed meat were given a high priority, while glyphosate was considered to be of only medium concern and GMOs a low priority.

This is by no means the first time that red and processed meat have gone under the cancer microscope.

For example, an international workshop organized by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Oslo in November 2013 talked about how to reach a consensus on the healthfulness of red and processed meat.

The workshop concluded that the interactions between meat and human health are complex and recommended further study. However, it also found that there are reasons to keep red meat in the diet.

It’s not too much to ask that the upcoming WHO discussion keep the same level of balance.

There is some reason for hope.

The WHO report summarizing the red and processed meat topic conceded that cooking methods may have more to do with cancer risk than the meat itself.

“Providing information on potential factors such as cooking methods that may affect cancer risk may be more useful to the public than an evaluation of only red meat or processed meats,” it said.

It’s unclear how much input the meat industry will have in the discussion, but it’s important that this process be on everyone’s radar.

In an ideal world, much confusion could be avoided if the scientists who write these reports would better explain what their recommendations mean. For instance, how does “possibly carcinogenic” differ from “probably carcinogenic?”

However, what is really required is paying better attention to how these recommendations are made in the first place.

The glyphosate study was widely criticized in scientific circles because it used the hazard-based (laboratory) approach to evaluate the danger rather than the risk-based (real world) method.

Hazard-based science is perfectly legitimate, but it can be confusing to simply focus on the hazardous nature of a product in lab tests instead of looking at how plausible the risks are if the product is used properly in the real world.

Let’s hope the committee studying the potential cancer risk of red and processed meats will use a more widely accepted scientific method that won’t set off alarm bells among so many international experts, as was the case with glyphosate.

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