WHO says processed meat can cause cancer

Processed meats such as ham, bacon, and salami can increase cancer risk. Image courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture.
Processed meats such as ham, bacon, and salami can increase cancer risk. Image courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture.

New research by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has established a link between the consumption of processed meats and colorectal cancer.

Work by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the WHO’s cancer division, has defined processed meats as ‘carcinogenic to humans’. As well, the IARC also defined unprocessed red meat as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’.

These classifications were established following a review of over 800 pieces of scientific literature by a working group of 22 experts from 10 countries convened by the IARC Monographs Programme.

Primarily, these experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

Processed meat in this context is defined as meat products produced through “salting, curing, fermentation and smoking”. Examples of these foods include bacon, ham, salami and hot dogs.

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

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

The IARC also called on governments to continue allowing people to make informed choices regarding their intake of these foods.

”These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat,” said Dr Christopher Wild, Director of IARC.

Meat industry responds

Industry groups have responded with concern to the report, calling for the findings to be viewed in context with a balanced diet and lifestyle considerations.

Top meat industry bodies in the US and UK have emphasised the nutritional benefits of eating meat, and pointed out that maintaining a healthy body weight, and avoiding smoking are better ways to avoid cancer.

While this new report may hurt the agricultural industries of countries like the US and Australia domestically, international demand for meat is increasing, especially in Asia. As such, the economic effects of these findings on the industry will likely remain small.