In October of this year, 22 scientists from ten countries met at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer divison of the World Health Organization, in Lyon, France. Their mission was to decide once and for all if the consumption of red and processed meat increases people's risk of getting cancer.
The report is in: processed meat is carcinogenic to humans based on "sufficient evidence" that the consumption of processed meat causes bowel cancer. And red meat "probably" has a carcinogenic to humans based on "limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect." The report adds, "This association was observed mainly for colorectal [bowel] cancer, but associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer."
The foods have been added to a list of carcinogens that include alcohol, cigarettes, asbestos, and arsenic. Their data states that 50 grams of processed meat (approximately three slices of cooked bacon) per day will increase your risk of bowel cancer by 18 percent. And according to Huffington Post, most Americans consume about 18 pounds of bacon every year.
The epidemiologist for the IARC, Dr. Kurt Straif, said in a statement, “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.”
Beef, lamb, and pork are examples of red meat included in a carcinogen list that includes glyphosate—an active ingredient in many weedkillers.
Predictably, WHO is receiving strong backlash from meat industry groups who are claiming that meat is part of a healthy, balanced diet, and that the cancer risk assessments did not include lifestyle and environmental factors.
But IARC notes in its report that lifesyle and environmental risks were in fact studied:
“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 prostate cancer," the report reads.
According to the Chicago Tribune, the U.S. beef industry—which pulls in $95 billion a year—has been mounting a response for months. Now that the verdict is out, some scientists, including some that are unaffiliated with the meat industre, are questioning whether the evidence is enough to draw such definitive claims.
WHO's claims are controversial, since red and processed meat—staples of the American palate—have been the subject of study for decades, with their possible link to bowel cancer a longtime fear.
It is a widely known that red meats are filled with unhealthy cholesterols and fats that cause heart disease and diabetes. But apparently those risks are ones the industry can live with. But WHO's declarations link the meat industry with America's biggest boogyman: 93,090 people will die this year alone of colon cancer, 39,610 will die of rectum canccer, and 48,960 will die of pancreatic cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. And that's just in the United States.
"We simply don’t think the evidence support any causal link between any red meat and and any type of cancer," said Shalene McNeill, executive director of human nutrition at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, to the Huffington Post.
However, WHO's findings are supported by a 2013 study from researchers at the University of Zurich, published in BMC Medicine, that links both processed and red meats to increased risk of dying from heart disease and cancer. Also, a British study from 2012 published in the British Journal of Cancer found that consuming meats like bacon and sausage increases your chances of pancreatic cancer—which has historically poor survival rates—by 19 percent.
With international findings supporting WHO’s data, it seems the only people claiming red and processed meats are healthy are the industries producing them.