Red meat declared cancer risk

Livestock and meat industry reactions to an international study that says hot dogs, bacon and other processed meat can cause cancer range from outrage to skepticism to pragmatism.

A summary of the study conducted by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said there is “sufficient evidence” to link consumption of processed meat with bowel cancer and classified it as Group 1, which is “carcinogenic to humans.”

It also classified red meat as “probably carcinogenic,” or Group 2A, placing it in the same cancer risk category as glyphosate.

A summary of the study findings was published Oct. 26 in the Lancet, and livestock and meat groups were quick to react.

The North American Meat Institute said defining red and processed meat as cancer hazards “defies both common sense and numerous studies showing no correlation between meat and cancer.”

Betsy Booren, NAMI’s scientific affairs vice-president, said the IARC “tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome,” adding that the agency has reviewed 940 agents and products and found only one that poses no hazard.

“Only one substance, a chemical in yoga pants, has been declared by IARC not to cause cancer,” said Booren. “IARC says you can enjoy your yoga class, but don’t breathe air (Class I carcinogen), sit near a sun-filled window (Class I), apply aloe vera (Class 2B) if you get a sunburn, drink wine or coffee (Class I and Class 2B) or eat grilled food (Class 2A), said Booren in a NAMI news release.

Reaction from Canadian groups was measured.

Rich Smith, executive director of Alberta Beef Producers, said results published in the IARC report summary were expected, but perspective was lacking.

“A very large percentage of the products they’ve tested and considered, they’ve found to be associated with causing cancer in some circumstances,” said Smith.

“What they don’t do is actually go through and assess the actual probability or risk of it actually happening. They just say, ‘under certain circumstances, this material could cause cancer.’ ”

Smith said consumers who follow meat consumption recommendations in the Canadian Food Guide receive benefits from protein, vitamins and iron.

Smith said Oct. 26 that it was too soon to predict market effects resulting from the IARC report, noting the full document is now under study by ABP and the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

The CCA said in its statement that IARC conducts hazard assessments rather than risk assessments, and the distinction is important.

“That means they consider whether meat at some level, under some circumstance, could pose a risk,” said the CCA.

It quoted IARC’s statement that there is “limited evidence in human beings for the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat.”

The Canadian Meat Council said the report does not indicate a cause and effect relationship between eating meat and getting cancer.

It noted that “cancer hazards” as defined by the IARC include meat in the same categories as alcoholic beverages, outdoor air pollution, sunlight, caffeine and fluorescent lighting.

Ron Davidson, director of international trade, government and media relations with the meat council, also emphasized the difference between hazard, which the IARC tries to measure, and risk, which it doesn’t.

“A majority of the IARC committee determined that processed meat could be a hazard under certain circumstances, so clearly one of the circumstances would be the amount that you would consume,” he said.

“That’s very different from a risk because a risk analysis takes into account not only the product itself but what the likelihood of you being exposed to it, or consuming it, would cause cancer.”


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