The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) arm of the World Health Organization (WHO) dropped a major bombshell this week with a new report linking red meat, bacon, and processed meats to cancer. Immediately after the report was released, cattle futures dropped. Livestock experts and organizations were quick to aggressively react to the report, criticizing the study for “limited evidence” even though WHO contends it’s based on the most comprehensive data ever.
For the record, WHO’s IARC defines red meat as “all types of mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat.”
While staunchly defending their research, WHO says their results have been distorted by the media. Check out what Prof Bernard Stewart, who chaired the working group behind this latest study, told BBC News in the video below.
As it turns out, WHO’s IARC is recommending that people cut back on their consumption of red and processed meats, not eliminate them from their diet altogether.
“These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat,” says Dr Christopher Wild, Director of IARC in a statement to the press.
“At the same time, red meat has nutritional value,” he continued. “Therefore, these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.”
Even so, urging a reduction of red meat consumption is potentially bad news for cattle ranchers and farmers.
But lost in the furor is the case for further genetic modification. If WHO and other organizations can identify precisely what it is in red meat that potentially leads to cancer, odds are the cause can be removed in genetically modified livestock.
Keep in mind that such identification hasn’t yet been made, hence Who’s determination in this report that red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), based on limited evidence…”
Probably is a heck of a long way from definitely carcinogenic.
And, I’m sure you spotted the words “based on limited evidence” in WHO’s press release verbiage. That’s exactly what livestock experts and meat industry organizations picked up on too.
Yet, as you heard in the video, WHO also contends that they analyzed more comprehensive data, that is data so large as to be difficult to analyze in their entirety before the advent of new technologies.
So, WHO says they analyzed lots and lots of data but the evidence is still limited. Yes, that means there is more work left to be done before we have definitive answers. Meanwhile, this report is sufficient to support earlier established food guidelines recommending a reduction in red and processed meat consumption.
If and when a definitive link is made between red meat and cancer, then we’ll likely be able to pinpoint the exact problem as well. That’s when genetic scientists can get to work altering cattle DNA to resolve it. Reducing cancer in humans is, after all, on everyone’s agenda.
Meanwhile, WHO says “processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), based on sufficient evidence…” which means the correlation or causation link is much stronger. However, the exact cause is yet to be identified. It could be in the meat, or in the way the meat is processed. It’s difficult to address those issues until we know what they are.
“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,” says Dr Kurt Straif, Head of the IARC Monographs Programme in that same statement to the press. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”
All told, there’s little to be alarmed over in this report. Yet much of media is sensationalizing it in headlines around the world. And therein lies the potential harm to the meat industry.
But farmers will get through this, as they have other controversies, and continue their work to thwart future famine. Meanwhile, genetic researchers are also hard at work to make food safer and more plentiful.
In the end, everyone has a stake in better, safer and more plentiful food.
WHO report on cancer-causing red meat may spur GMO