The World Health Organization announced on October 26 that bacon, sausage and other processed meats cause cancer, and that red meat probably does. This would put these food products in the category of substances such as tobacco and asbestos. A 22-member panel of international experts came to the conclusion after viewing decades of research on the supposed link between cancer and red meat and processed meats. The experts looked into experiments on animal subjects, and studies into human health and diet, as well as mechanisms at the cellular level that may lead to cancer.
However, the experts are not unanimous in their conclusions.
The announcement is bound to be controversial since there is a $95 billion beef industry in America that may be vastly affected by the findings. The European Union would also be affected by the announcement, since it is a major exporter (as is the US) of products such as pork to North America, Russia and China, processed meats, and cancer. The panel reviewed animal experiments, studies of human diet and health, and cell mechanisms that could lead from red meat to cancer. The meat industry in the US has been preparing for months to address the WHO claims, having already asserted that there is any evidence to support the claims made by the study.
The international panel "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," according to a statement on the website of Lancet – one of the world’s most influential medical journals. Also cited were studies that suggest that the consumption of an additional 100 grams (3.5 oz.) of red meat per day may raise the risk of colorectal cancer by 17 percent. And that eating an extra 50 grams (1.7 oz.) of processed flesh every day may increase the risk by 18 percent.
Experts have debated the possible links between the consumption of red meat and cancer – especially colorectal cancer – for decades. However, the most recent WHO findings that red meats “probably” cause cancer goes beyond conclusions drawn in the past. The American Cancer Society has noted studies that found linkages between meat and colorectal cancer but stopped short of warning consumers off. While diets laden with vegetables and fruit, and small amounts of processed meats and red meat, have been associated with lower rates of colorectal cancer, the American Cancer Society says that the evidence is “not exactly clear.”
The Federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourages people to eat protein-rich foods such as lean meats. However, the guidelines warn: "moderate evidence suggests an association between the increased intake of processed meats (e.g., franks, sausage, and bacon) and increased risk of colorectal cancer and cardiovascular disease."
Eating meat has been subjected to cultural pressures, in addition to scientific scrutiny in recent years. Animal-rights campaigners in North America and Europe especially have focused on the welfare of animals in slaughterhouses, but have also spread a doctrine of vegan and other meat-free dietary customs.
Scientists who are critical of epidemiological studies linking diet to specific medical conditions point out that experiments to test theories of food/cancer causation face huge logistical challenges that require controlling the diets of thousands of people over many years and could pose ethical challenges. For example, a 2012 paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition asked “Is everything we eat associated with cancer?” It noted that studies had been done on common ingredients found in an ordinary cookbook and that 40 ingredients out of 50 had been tested for cancer risk. Most of these studies found that eating the foods was related to cancer risk. However, research on any given ingredient was considered collectively, those effects typically dwindled. "Many single studies highlight implausibly large effects, even though evidence is weak," the authors concluded.
Dr. Ian Johnson of the Institute of Food Research was quoted by the UK daily The Telegraph, saying:
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.
Whether the WHO conclusions have an effect on law, and consumer habits, in the US is likely to be determined by lobbyists in Washington DC.
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