Processed Meats Cause Cancer, According To WHO Report

October 26th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Processed meats—products that have undergone modification to enhance flavor or improve shelf life—are among the worst carcinogens humans can ingest alongside cigarettes, asbestos, or arsenic, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday.

(Processed meats were put into group one, yet Reuters explains that the agency "does not compare the level of cancer risk associated with different substances in a given category, so does not suggest eating meat is as dangerous as smoking, for example.")

A report from the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that processed meat consumption was strongly linked to developing colorectal (bowel) cancer in humans, and that red meat was also "probably carcinogenic to humans." The report comes as the latest indicator that meat consumption at current levels could be unsustainable, and in fact, dangerous.

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"For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but the risk increases with the amount of meat consumed," said Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs Program. "In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance."

The report's findings, based on more than 800 studies, found that with each 50 gram piece of processed meat consumed daily—be it bacon, sausages, jerky, or corned beef—the risk of developing colorectal cancer increased by 18 percent.

Meat industry spokespeople were less than enthusiastic about the IARC's findings, with the North American Meat Institute's vice president of scientific affairs, Betsy Booren, claiming that the data defied common sense.

“IARC says you can enjoy your yoga class, but don’t breathe air (Class I carcinogen), sit near a sun-filled window (Class I), apply aloe vera (Class 2B) if you get a sunburn, drink wine or coffee (Class I and Class 2B), or eat grilled food (Class 2A). And if you are a hairdresser or do shiftwork (both Class 2A), you should seek a new career,” she said, referring to the agency's carcinogen classification system.

The report builds on statistics showing the meat industry's destructive toll on the planet—it is one of the top drivers of carbon—as well as previous studies equating meat to cigarettes in terms of carcinogenic toxicity.