Processed meat and red meat may increase the risk of cancer, according to a new study from the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) which was recently published in Lancet Oncology.
Processed meats such as hot dogs and bacon have been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen, and can increase the risk of bowel cancer by 18 percent for every 50 gram serving eaten daily. A Group 1 classification is the strongest association, placing the consumption of these meats among dangers like cigarettes. Red meats such as beef and pork received a Group 2a classification, meaning there is strong evidence to suggest they are probably cancer-causing with limited evidence from human studies. It has previously been reported that the commonly used herbicide glyphosate, more commonly known as Roundup, causes similar risk.
Group classifications used to describe cancer risk are assigned according to the amount of evidence present to suggest a correlation. While processed meat was given a higher risk designation, the study concluded that fresh red meats such as steak or lamb may increase chances of bowel, prostate, and pancreas cancers. In all cases, the risk escalates with the amount of meat eaten over time.
These findings are published amidst the public’s increasing interest in higher-quality meat products. Americans consume approximately 25 percent less red meat since the 1970s, but the average consumption of meat remains higher than the federal MyPlate recommendations, and poultry consumption continues to rise. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee also found in their systematic review of scientific evidence that an overall healthy dietary pattern is low in red meat and processed meat.
Yet the official 2015 federal dietary guidelines—set to be released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) by the end of the year—may or may not include warnings to consume less red meat and processed meats based on cancer risk. “Look, the Dietary Guidelines are pretty clear: Lean meat is part of a healthy diet. That’s the science that we rely on, that’s the science that’s being reviewed now as the Dietary Guidelines are being developed,” says Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. “… until such time that the folks that are formulating the Dietary Guidelines tell me different, that’s the approach we’re going to take.”
The American meat industry also pushed back on the findings, claiming that no new evidence was reviewed and that the IARC may not represent scientific consensus. "It’s a dramatic and alarmist overreach,” says Eric Mittenthal, vice president of public affairs for the North American Meat Institute. “They tortured the data to fit what their preconceived notion was.”
Public health advocates disagree. It’s time Americans fully understand that ““bacon and sausage and pepperoni and hot dogs aren’t harmless,” according to Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The meat industry is now on the defensive to combat the negative headlines, and its predictable response has been to use the “playbook of the tobacco, fossil fuels and every other industry that tries to convince the public that there’s doubt behind the science,” says Liebman.