International panel warns that meat causes cancer

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SALEM, Ohio — Livestock producers and meat lovers everywhere are up in arms over an Oct. 26 announcement that proclaimed eating processed meat causes cancer, specifically colorectal cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, evaluated the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat and now classifies the consumption of red meat as “probably” carcinogenic to humans. Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans.

A news release announcing the decision stated the agency’s classification was based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans. A working group of 22 experts from 10 countries made the determination.

The panel could not quantify how much meat you would have to eat to be at risk.

The scientists found there was sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer. They concluded that each 50-gram portion (less than 2 ounces) of processed meat eaten daily over a lifetime increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

Risk is small

“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, with the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

But, he added, because “of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

The working group evaluated more than 800 studies from several continents about meat and cancer. The studies looked at more than a dozen types of cancer in populations with diverse diets over the past 20 years.

Experts divided

Members of the international committee assigned to review all of the evidence on red meat and cancer risk were divided on their opinion whether to label red meat a “probable” cause of cancer. That’s according to the Beef Checkoff nutrition scientist and registered dietitian, Shalene McNeill, PhD, RD, who observed the International Agency for Research on Cancer process. McNeill is executive director of human nutrition research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

The experts were unable to reach a consensus agreement, and instead used “majority” agreement for the meat announcement.

“Cancer is a complex disease that even the best and brightest minds don’t fully understand,” said McNeill. “Billions of dollars have been spent on studies all over the world and no single food has ever been proven to cause or cure cancer.”

It’s complicated

“There are a constellation of factors that are associated with the probability of getting cancer, which include age, genetics, socioeconomic characteristics, obesity, lack of physical activity, where you grew up, alcohol consumption, smoking and even your profession,” said Dominik Alexander, PhD, MSPH, an epidemiologist who has conducted the research on behalf of the Beef Checkoff.

Because red meat is “consumed in the context of hundreds of other foods and is correlated with other behavioral factors,” Alexander added, “it is not valid to conclude red meat is an independent cause of cancer.”

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