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WHO report on meat – farce or serious stuff?

meatSince news broke on Monday that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has ranked red and processed meat (including bacon, ham and sausages) as a major cause of cancer, opinions have been mixed, with some viewing the findings as “ridiculous.”

And governments too, particularly those among the top meat exporters such as Australia, have dissed the report.

To recap, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), made up of international scientists who deliberated on the research for over a year, said in its report that there was enough evidence to rank processed meats as group 1 carcinogens because “of a causal link with bowel cancer.”

Red meat, on the other hand, was placed in group 2A as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

“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.”

This is in line with what the World Cancer Research Fund has always contended – that processed meat is a “cancer hazard”, and that people should eat such products as little as possible, with no more than 500g a week of red meat, including beef, pork and lamb.

“Cancer Research UK supports IARC’s decision that there’s strong enough evidence to classify processed meat as a cause of cancer, and red meat as a probable cause of cancer,” said Prof Tim Key, Cancer Research UK’s epidemiologist at the University of Oxford.

“This decision doesn’t mean you need to stop eating any red and processed meat. But if you eat lots of it you may want to think about cutting down. You could try having fish for your dinner rather than sausages, or choosing to have a bean salad for lunch over a BLT.”

The IARC’s report, however, was met with incredulity from the Australian government, which described the WHO report as a “farce.”

"No, it shouldn't be compared to cigarettes and obviously that makes the whole thing a farce - comparing sausages to cigarettes," Australian Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"I don't think that we should get too excited that if you have a sausage you're going to die of bowel cancer because you're not. You just don't want to live on sausages."

He said that instead of avoiding meat totally, the more important thing was to have a balanced diet.

"If you got everything that the World Health Organisation said was carcinogenic and took it out of your daily requirements, well you are kind of heading back to a cave," he said.

Industry players also criticised the IARC report.

“Red and processed meats do not give you cancer,” said Robert Pickard, a member of the Meat Advisory Panel and emeritus professor of neurobiology at the University of Cardiff.

“Avoiding red meat in the diet is not a protective strategy against cancer,” he added, according to The Guardian. “The top priorities for cancer prevention remain smoking cessation, maintenance of normal body weight and avoidance of high-alcohol intakes. Red meat has a valuable role within a healthy, balanced diet thanks to its high-protein content and rich nutritional composition.”

The Guardian reports:

The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, which is funded by the farming industry, played down the report’s findings. Maureen Strong, the nutrition manager for the AHDB, said: “The International Agency for Research onCancer isn’t saying red and processed meat as part of a balanced diet causes cancer: no single food causes cancer. Nor is it saying it is as dangerous as smoking ... the IARC itself has said that the risk from processed meat remains small.”

One meat producer, Charles Baughan, owner of Westaways Sausages in Devon, dismissed the report altogether. He said that none of the relatives who had run the family-owned firm previously had had cancer.

“Many of them have lived into their 90s and I don’t think any of them have had cancer,” he said.

In Singapore, the National Cancer Centre said in an earlier article on the Health Xchange website, that one of the seven “most effective lifestyle changes" to lower your colorectal cancer risk is to “eat less fat and red meat.”

“There is convincing evidence that red meat contributes to colorectal cancer risk,” the article said. “The World Cancer Research Fund recommends eating a maximum of 500g of cooked red meat per week.”

Incidentally, if you are unsure what a balanced diet is, perhaps this article on the Health Promotion Board’s website will help: “Build a healthy food foundation”.