Meat industry criticizes WHO report linking processed meats to cancer

Meat industry criticizes WHO report linking processed meats to cancer
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The meat industry and its supporters on Capitol Hill are lashing out at a new World Health Organization report that found a link between processed meats such as bacon and sausage and cancer.

Groups representing meat processors criticized the WHO’s reputation and the methods behind its study while arguing that eating hot dogs, sausages and other processed meats is perfectly safe.

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“These claims are based on a biased selection of studies performed by an organization notorious for distorting and misconstruing data to link even the most innocuous products—everything from glass jars to baby powder— to this terrible disease,” House Agriculture Committee Chair Michael Conaway (R-Texas) said in a statement.

An official with the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) argued that hundreds of agents reviewed by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have been found to pose a “theoretical” health hazard.

“Only one substance, a chemical in yoga pants, has been declared by IARC not to cause cancer,” Betsy Booren, NAMI’s vice president of scientific affairs, said in a statement.

In dismissing the findings, she said red and processed meats are among 940 agents that have been found to pose a hazard.

The findings by the WHO are potentially important for the industry, since they have the potential to influence Americans to eat less meat. News reports about the WHO report ran continuously on Monday.

The report from IARC classified processed meat as a known carcinogen and red meat as a probable carcinogen. Eating 50 grams of bacon, sausage, hot dogs or beef jerky every day, the agency said, increases your risk of getting colon or rectal cancer by 18 percent.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Health and Human Services Department are now drafting 2015 dietary guidelines that are to be completed in December. 

On Monday afternoon, the Health and Human Services Department said it had not had the opportunity to review IARC’s report and supporting evidence.

NAMI Spokesman Eric Mittenthal said the data used by the WHO has been around for years and does not offer compelling evidence that meat should be classified as a carcinogen.

“If you look closely at the abstract, in red meat they found associations in 7 of 15 studies they evaluated,” he said. “That means they didn’t find anything in 8 of 15. We are confident that USDA and HHS would recognize how weak the evidence is.”

Shalene McNeill, a registered dietician and nutrition scientist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said most scientists agree that it’s unrealistic to isolate a single food from a complex dietary pattern that’s further impacted by lifestyle and environmental issues.

“These types of studies aren’t meant to prove cause and effect,” she said. “IARC looks at whether or not anything could potentially or possibly cause cancer under any circumstance.”

At the end of the day, McNeill said reports like this fail to pass the “sniff test.”

“We know people have been consuming meat for forever,” she said. “It’s definitely part of a healthy and balanced diet. I don’t think anybody’s really debating this topic.”

But health organizations like the American Cancer Society backed the report, calling it an important step in helping people make healthier dietary choices.

“The conclusion that processed meat causes cancer and that red meat is a probable cause of cancer may come as a surprise to a public that for years has relied heavily on red and processed meats as a part of its diet,” Susan Gapstur, the group’s vice president of epidemiology, said in a statement.

“The conclusions for both red and processed meats are based primarily on evidence showing an increased risk of colorectal cancer, the third most commonly diagnosed cancer among men and among women in the U.S.," she said. "For red meat, there was also evidence of increased risk of pancreatic and prostate cancer.”

Gapstur said IARC’s conclusions are in line with the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research Continuous Update Project, which found “convincing evidence” that diets high in red and processed meat are linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer.

In a news release, Dr. Kurt Straif, head of IARC’s Monographs Program, said that while the risk of cancer from eating meats is small, it can increase based on the amount of processed meat consumed by an individual.

“In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance,” he said.