Q&A: Should we be worried by reports that processed meat can cause cancer?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) report which suggested processed meats can cause bowel cancer has led to considerable concern in recent days. Here we try and answer some of the common qiestions arising. 

What does the WHO report say?

A bacon sandwich(Anthony Devlin/PA)

The report classified processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” – the most severe of five possible rankings. Alcohol, asbestos, arsenic and cigarettes also share the classification.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the WHO, said: “Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans, based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.”

Processed meat is meat which has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation.

Red meat was labelled as “probably” carcinogenic.

How did they reach these conclusions? Red meat on display(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The IARC group considered more than 800 studies that investigated associations of more than a dozen types of cancer with the consumption of red meat or processed meat in many countries and populations with diverse diets.

The 22 experts from 10 countries, convened by the IARC Monographs Programme, classified the consumption of red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” – the second highest ranking – based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and “strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect”.

Does this mean processed meat is as dangerous as smoking? Processed meat(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

No. The classifications are based on the strength of evidence that the agent in question – in this case processed meat – causes cancer.

It does not mean that processed meat carries an equivalent health risk to smoking or drinking.

Should we stop eating all processed and red meat? A meat counter(Ben Birchall/PA)

Not necessarily, but experts are warning you should probably cut down. The WHO report said that eating portions of 50 grams of processed meat each day increases the chances of contracting bowel cancer by 18%.

It is recognised, however, that red meat has nutritional value.

Dr Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs Programme, said: “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.”

Professor Tim Key, from Cancer Research UK, said: “This decision doesn’t mean you need to stop eating any red and processed meat. But if you eat lots of it you may want to think about cutting down. You could try having fish for your dinner rather than sausages, or choosing to have a bean salad for lunch over a BLT.

“Eating a bacon bap every once in a while isn’t going to do much harm – having a healthy diet is all about moderation.”

How have those in the meat industry responded? A butcher preparing a rib-eye steak.(Ben Birchall/PA)

Experts from the meat industry have responded with surprise to the WHO’s report.

Professor Robert Pickard, from the Meat Advisory Panel, which is funded by British meat producers via the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, said: “Red and processed meat do not give you cancer and actually the IARC report is not saying that eating processed meat is as harmful as smoking. In fact comparing red meat to smoking is ridiculous.

“Looking at the report itself I am very surprised by IARC’s strong conclusion on categorising processed red meat as definitely and red meat as being probably carcinogenic to humans given the lack of consensus within the scientific community and the very weak evidence regarding the causal relationship between red meat and cancer.”

He cited a large European study which showed that bowel cancer rates were similar in meat-eaters and vegetarians.

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