Experts disagree about ‘probably carcinogenic’ processed meat

The WHO has shone a spotlight on the health risks of eating processed meat, such as sausages. [Reiner Kraft/Flickr]

The WHO now considers the consumption of processed and red meat to be as dangerous as smoking or drinking alcohol. EURACTIV’s partner Tagesspiegel reports.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has taken the step of classifying processed meat as carcinogenic, which now means that ham, bacon and salami are classified in the same category as alcohol, tobacco, asbestos and arsenic.

Large-scale study

There is “sufficient evidence” to draw a link between the consumption of processed-meat products and cancer, said the WHO’s experts, who belong to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), after studying more than 800 cases.

Statistically, the risk for the individual of developing cancer is “low”, but the likelihood increases in parallel with meat-consumption, summarised the working group of 22 researchers from ten countries in the IARC journal “Lancet Oncology”. Consuming 50 grams a day is likely to increase the risk of bowel cancer by 18%.

The experts did not go into further detail and conclude to what extent the method of preparation affected the risk. Processed meat can be cured, smoked or fermented. Therefore, products such as canned and dried meats, sausages and meat-sauces could also potentially be carcinogenic.

Unprocessed meats also risky

Unprocessed red meats, including beef, pork and lamb, also increase the risk of cancer, said the WHO, classing them as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. This is one category lower than processed meat, ranking it alongside the controversial glyphosate pesticide.

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The researchers found that consumption of this type of meat also increased the risk of bowel, pancreatic and prostate cancer. Christopher Wild, the director of IARC, also stressed that meat consumption can benefit a balanced diet, as it is a good source of iron, zinc, selenium and vitamin B.

It is now up to individual national authorities to weigh up the risks and benefits, before adopting appropriate recommendations, said Wild.

Nobel Prize winner finds fault

However, not all experts are in agreement with the findings. Harald zur Hausen, a renowned cancer researcher and Nobel Prize winner, told Tagesspiegel that he was “not happy” with the classification. While it is true that frying, grilling and curing red meat leads to the release of chemical substances, the same can be said of fish and poultry.

Additionally, it is significant that in countries that consume large quantities of red meat, such as Mongolia and Bolivia, the rate of colon cancer is extremely low.

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There is evidence that certain kinds of beef increase the risk, said zur Hausen, who is also the former head of the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg. In his view, the WHO should have differentiated between the different types of meat more. However, he added that if it leads to a reduction in meat consumption, it is still a good thing.

German men eat too much meat

The German Nutrition Society recommends that weekly intake of meat should not exceed 300-600 grams. However, German males consume more than a kilo, while women ingest nearly 600 grams.

Thomas Vogelsang, the head of the German meat industry federation, said that developing cancer is influenced by “other factors such as genetic predisposition, the environment and lifestyle choices, not just a single type of food”.

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Studies have shown that 34,000 people die each year from cancer linked to the overconsumption of processed meat. If a link between red meat and cancer is confirmed, then that number would rise to 50,000.

However, this risk is almost completely eclipsed by the deaths associated with smoking, where over six million people die each year worldwide.

This article was previously published by EURACTIV Germany.

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