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Does Bacon Cause Cancer?

On Monday (26th Oct 2015) the World Health Organisation released a report that categorized processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” and red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans”.  

This placed processed meats (like ham, bacon, sausages, hot dogs and salami) in the same category as cigarettes and asbestos! There were no ifs, buts or maybes about it – “consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer”.

Worldwide headlines were initially dramatic – “Meat is Linked To Higher Cancer Risk”, headlined the New York Times, while the Irish Times declared that “Bacon, ham and sausages are as big a cancer threat as cigarettes, said WHO experts”!  Interestingly, the Farmers Journal decided not to panic just yet and ran with “No definitive cancer risk from red meat”!

Within a few hours, various experts and commentators were being reported in the same media, reassuring us that meat was indeed safe to eat. The consumer, meanwhile was becoming weary and confused!

The problem seems to lie with the way the report was written, presented, and subsequently reported.  The International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is the arm of the WHO that actually compiled the report, makes no distinction at all between various kinds of processed meats.  Any meat that has been smoked, salted, cured or had any substance whatsoever added to it in order to enhance its flavour or preserve it longer, is called “processed”.

There are many reasons to take issue with this report but, for me, this is the biggest.  Most people are well aware that there are some pretty horrendous products out there, masquerading as some kind of processed “meat”, and that eating them regularly will do you no good at all! But to lump these concoctions into the same category as the excellent cured or smoked meats that have been prepared in this country and all over the world with care and craft for centuries is quite clearly ludicrous!  This is where the report loses credibility. Remember, this is the same category (Group 1) – “Carcinogenic to humans” – that contains more obvious undesirables like cigarettes, asbestos and arsenic!

There’s another problem with the study. Apparently, the increase in risk is in the order of 18%, if you are having your rashers every day. This does not mean that such consumers have an 18% chance of getting cancer. No, Ciarán Lenehan pointed out on twitter, it has been calculated that, on average an adult male has a 0.68% chance of contacting colorectal cancer within the next 10 years. So it is this percentage that increases, which means that eating processed meat might increase this chance to 0.8%.

Or it may not. Measuring one’s risk of getting cancer (or any other disease) is a complicated business, with many factors in play. People who eat lots of processed meat may have other habits relating to diet and exercise which may increase or modify that risk.  Food writer Zoe Harcombe puts it like this:

“By singling out red meat/processed meat in this way, the whole diet and lifestyle of a person is not taken into account. There is a world of difference between the health of a burger/hot-dog/ketchup/white bun/fizzy drink guzzling couch potato and a grass-fed-steak eating/CrossFit/six-pack Paleo specimen.”

Meanwhile, science journalist, Ed Yong was venting in The Atlantic. “The International Agency of Research into Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization, is notable for two things. First, they’re meant to carefully assess whether things cause cancer, from pesticides to sunlight, and to provide the definitive word on those possible risks. Second, they are terrible at communicating their findings.”

Well that is putting it mildly! On Monday the WHO tweeted “Sufficient evidence in humans shows that consumption of processed meat caused colorectal cancer.” That is a fairly forthright and shocking statement which, by Wednesday, has Dr Robert O’Connor, head of research at the Irish Cancer Society scrambling to clarify:

“So: do sausages cause cancer? No, they don’t. The occasional consumption of meat and meat products has little impact on day-to-day health but you should be aware that if you eat a lot of these foods regularly and over much of your life then you slightly but measurably increase your risk of getting some forms of cancer.”

So what in the name of goodness was the point of issuing such an unbalanced report in the first place that caused concern, confusion and exasperation? It really is hard to say anything good about it. Has it at least started a conversation which will make people think about the amount and quality of meat they eat?

No I don’t think so. The report was simply badly compiled and strident in it language. Its findings are daft and no one is going to pay a blind bit of notice.

I’m going to let Joanna Blythman have the last word. “The best reaction is just to use your common sense. Eat your favourite foods — but don’t overdo them. There are far greater dangers lurking in our society than a crisp rasher of bacon.”

Click here to view the press release from WHO.

Here are the articles that I have refered to -

Zoe Harcombe

Ed Yong

Dr Robert O’Connor

Joanna Blythman

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