IARC unveils evaluation of meat products

by Erica Shaffer
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The IARC has said processed meats are "carcinogenic to humans" based on reviews of hundreds of studies.

LYON, France – The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization, has definitively linked the consumption of processed meats to an increased risk for developing certain cancers. The IARC published a summary of the panel’s findings in The Lancet Oncology.

The IARC panel of health experts classified processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans based on sufficient evidence,” while consumption of red meat was classified as “probably carcinogenic” to humans. The IARC concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases an individual’s risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. Examples given by the IARC included hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, beef jerky in addition to canned meat and meat-based preparations and sauce.

“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,” Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs Programme, said in a statement. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health concern.”

A panel of 22 health experts from 10 countries reviewed more than 800 studies that examined the associations of more than a dozen types of cancer with consumption of red meat or processed meat. The studies were from “many countries and populations with diverse diets,” the IARC noted. But the most influential evidence came from large cohort studies conducted over the past 20 years.

But industry groups such as the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association have come out in opposition to the IARC’s findings. NAMI said the IARC’s classification of meat as carcinogenic was a “dramatic and alarmist overreach.” The NCBA said science doesn’t support the agency’s findings. In fact, IARC members were unable to reach a consensus agreement on whether red meat is a “probable” cause of cancer.

“Cancer is a complex disease that even the best and brightest minds don’t fully understand,” said Shalene McNeill, Ph.D., RD, Beef Checkoff nutrition scientist and registered dietitian who observed the IARC process. “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. The opinion by the IARC committee to list red meat as a probable carcinogen does not change that fact. The available scientific evidence simply does not support a causal relationship between red or processed meat and any type of cancer.”

The IARC said the association of red meat consumption to cancer was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but was also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer. Thus, the IARC’s findings supported recommendations to limit intake of red meat. However, the agency acknowledged the health benefits of meat consumption.

“These findings support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat,” said Dr. Christopher Wild, director of the IARC. “At the same time, red meat has nutritional value. 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 and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.”

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