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Intro: The International Agency for Research on Cancer has published a report classifying processed meat like bacon, hot dogs, lunch meat as a Group 1 carcinogen. How has that revelation been received by governments and industry? And just how much cancer does processed meat cause? I’ll answer those questions in this two-part series.
“It is [perhaps] rare, in the history of nations, that one finds good reasons to render homage to the generosity and altruism of governments and those in power, but the birth of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) presents one of those rare occasions.” It all started with a single letter from a bereaved husband, relating the suffering of his wife after a cancer diagnosis, cascading into this open letter calling for governments to devote half of 1 percent of their military budgets to fight for life by attacking one of the greatest plagues that weigh on humanity. And 18 months later, the IARC was born in the World Health Organization. With what overarching motive? Cancer prevention.
The IARC is best known for its monographs––book-sized reports evaluating whether or not some suspected carcinogen does in fact cause cancer. They are generally accepted as close to as ﬁnal word as there is on whether or not something is carcinogenic. And their 114th monograph, published in 2018, was on meat. After thoroughly reviewing the accumulated scientific literature, a Working Group of 22 experts from 10 countries, after considering more than 800 different studies, concluded their 500-page report by establishing that something like a burger or pork chop is probably carcinogenic; probably causes cancer. But processed meat was placed as a Group 1 carcinogen––the highest level of certainty––meaning that according to the best available evidence, the consumption of processed meat causes cancer.
So, that means foods like bacon cause cancer; ham, hot dogs, breakfast links, lunch meat causes cancer. But their definition also includes, for example, turkey deli slices. Specifically, eating processed meat causes colorectal cancer––cancers of the colon or rectum, the second most deadly cancer worldwide after lung cancer, which is caused largely from smoking. Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death here in the United States as well, and it doesn’t just strike older people. It’s also a leading cause of cancer and death from cancer earlier in life as well.
The meat industry wasn’t happy, calling it a “dramatic and alarmist overreach.” Speaking of dramatic and alarmist overreach, one ag group in Italy sent out a press release: Just say no to terrorism on meat.
The gloves were off. The meat industry in Canada tried to pressure the government to cut off funds to the IARC, asking the Health Minister to pull all funding from the agency after they dared to question meat. And the U.S. meat industry did the same thing. It’s no surprise the IARC is under siege by corporate interests, trying to challenge their cancer evaluations on Monsanto’s Roundup pesticide and meat; trying to discredit the agency and undermine financial support. Internal documents have revealed that Monsanto scientists, for example, “casually discussing ‘ghost-writing’ scientific papers and suppressing any science that conflicts with the company’s assertions of safety.”
The chemical industry has joined the corporate cacophony, calling the IARC monographs “dubious and misleading.” These are classic strategies straight out of the tobacco industry playbook. “But there is little to suggest that, as a corporate actor, ’Big Tobacco‘ differs fundamentally from, for example, ’Big Booze’ or ’Big Food’.”
One recurring corporate talking point is that basically, the IARC never met a carcinogen it didn’t like. But the vast majority end up being categorized as just possibly carcinogenic, or there really aren’t sufficient data to make a determination either way. And look, they only spend time looking at substances for which there is already an existing body of scientific literature indicating a degree of carcinogenic hazard to humans. So, no wonder many of them end up, indeed, carcinogenic.
How did the IARC respond to all the criticism? The World Health Organization received a number of queries, expressions of concern, and requests for clarification following the publication of their meat and cancer report. They replied, hey, we never told anyone to stop eating processed meats—your body, your choice. They just indicated that reducing consumption of these products can reduce the risk of a leading cancer killer. So hey, you like cancer? You do you.
The IARC is just a research organization that evaluates the evidence on the causes of cancer; after that, what you do with that information is up to you. The American Cancer Society was nice and clear when it came to alcohol. When it comes to cancer, it is best not to drink alcohol. But they got a little more wishy-washy with processed meat, suggesting people can get away with just limiting their intake.
The European Commission was a little clearer. To reduce our risk of cancer, we should eat plenty of whole grains, pulses (which are beans, split peas, chickpeas and lentils), vegetables and fruits, limit sugary, fatty, salty foods, and straight up avoid soda, sausage, and other processed meats. After all, in answering the question how much meat is safe to eat, the IARC replied that we don’t yet know whether a safe level exists, period.
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