Global health experts are to warn that bacon, ham and sausages are as big a cancer threat as cigarettes.
On Monday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) will publish a report on the dangers of eating processed meats.
The announcement is expected to list the fry-up favourites in the same category as arsenic, asbestos and cigarettes. It is expected to list processed meat as a cancer-causing substance, while fresh red meat is also expected to be regarded as bad for health.
The classifications, by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, are believed to regard processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans”, the highest of five possible rankings, shared with alcohol, asbestos, arsenic and cigarettes.
The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) has warned for several years there is “strong evidence” that consuming a lot of red meat can cause bowel cancer. It also says there is “strong evidence” processed meats — even smaller quantities — increase cancer risk.
One possible reason is that the compound that gives red meat its colour — haem — may damage the lining of the bowel. In addition, when meat is preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by adding preservatives, cancer-causing substances (carcinogens) can be formed.
Bowel cancer is the second most common cancer in Europe and the third most common worldwide
Studies also show people who eat a lot of red meat tend to eat fewer plant-based foods that protect against cancer.
The WCRF advises people can reduce their bowel cancer risk by eating no more than 500g (cooked weight) per week of red meat, such as beef, pork, and lamb. It also says people should eat processed meats such as ham, bacon and salami as little as possible. Foods like hamburgers, minced beef, pork chops and roast lamb are also regarded as red meat.
As a rough guide, the WCRF says 500g of cooked red meat is the same as 700g of raw red meat.
Processed meat is meat which has been preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by the addition of preservatives.
Examples include ham, bacon, pastrami and salami, as well as hot dogs and some sausages.
Dr Ian Johnson, emeritus fellow at the Institute of Food Research, said: “Although there is epidemiological evidence for a statistically significant association between processed meat consumption and bowel cancer, it is important to emphasise that the size of the effect is relatively small, and the mechanism is poorly defined. It is certainly very inappropriate to suggest that any adverse effect of bacon and sausages on the risk of bowel cancer is comparable to the dangers of tobacco smoke, which is loaded with known chemical carcinogens and increases the risk of lung cancer in cigarette smokers by around 20-fold.”
According to the Daily Mail, the decision by the WHO was made following a meeting and review of available evidence by scientists from 10 nations including Britain. But the decision could have a serious financial impact on farmers and the food industry.
Betsy Booren, of the North American Meat Institute, said recently: “If they determine that red and processed meat causes cancer — and I think they will — that moniker will stick. It could take decades and billions of dollars to change that.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved