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WHO Panel Issues Hazard Assessment on Meat

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has issued a report assessing processed meat as a carcinogen and red meat as a probable carcinogen. The organization says the association is for colorectal cancer, but associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.

The designation places processed meat in a category alongside such things as tobacco and alcoholic beverages. Red meat is in the same category as glyphosate and nightshift work. Unlike sage advice to avoid smoking and drinking, however, Robert Pickard, Professor Emeritus of Neurobiology at the University of Cardiff, says, “Avoiding red meat in the diet is not a protective strategy against cancer.”

Since 1979, IARC has evaluated more than 900 environmental causes of cancer including chemicals, air pollutants, occupational exposures, physical agents such as solar radiation, biological agents such as hepatitis, and personal habits like smoking. They are grouped as Category 1: Carcinogenic; Category 2A: Probably Carcinogenic; Category 2B: Possibly Carcinogenic; and Category 3: Not Classifiable. There is a Category 4 (Probably Not Carcinogenic) but of the hundreds of agents that have been reviewed, only one has ever been placed under this heading — caprolactam, used in the manufacture of synthetic fibers.

IARC Classifications

IARC is a respected body under the umbrella of the World Health Organization, but its work might be confusing to the general public when they see commonly-used substances and everyday practices classified in such a way. It’s important to understand that IARC panels look at “hazards” while regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration evaluate actual human “risks.”

Many things (the sun, chemicals, talcum powder) can present a hazard depending on factors like prolonged exposure or the amount used. But unlike risk assessments, hazard evaluations do not assess how likely a person is to actually get cancer from using them.

Many experts note that eating processed or red meat by themselves should not be considered a risk, but the amount and frequency of consumption balanced with other factors such as lifestyle and physical activity should be taken into consideration.

Consumers have a right to expect the food they feed their families is safe and nutritious and they look to the food system to do the right thing in producing food and properly informing the public. Meat’s association with cancer is an issue to be taken seriously but experts caution against placing too much blame on a single food source, which could be detrimental to a balanced diet.

Producing safe, healthy food is of utmost importance to everyone in the food system. Eating in moderation, including all food groups and balancing with the right amount of physical activity all contribute to a healthy food plan.