WASHINGTON – The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO) is set to add processed meats to its list of substances most likely to cause disease, while WHO is expected to go further by putting fresh red meat on its list of carcinogens, according to news reports. The final decision is expected on Oct. 26.

Reports of the impending announcements by the IARC and WHO, which were leaked to the media, were concerning enough to prompt an industry response. The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) said the IARC’s classification of meat is a “dramatic and alarmist overreach.” 

Barry Carpenter, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute
Barry Carpenter, president and CEO of NAMI

“Red and processed meat are among 940 substances reviewed by IARC found to pose some level of theoretical ‘hazard.’ Only one substance, a chemical in yoga pants, has been declared by IARC not to cause cancer,” Barry Carpenter, NAMI president and CEO, said in a statement. “Scientific evidence shows cancer is a complex disease not caused by single foods and that a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle choices are essential to good health.”

NAMI added that the IARC’s panel was tasked with “looking at hazards that meat could pose at some level, under circumstance, but was not asked to consider any off-setting benefits, like the nutrition that meat delivers or the implications of drastically reducing or removing meat from the diet altogether.”

The IARC’s goal is to identify causes of cancer. The agency evaluates the cancer-causing potential of substances and places them into one of five categories:

• Group 1: Carcinogenic to humans
• Group 2A: Probably carcinogenic to humans
• Group 2B: Possibly carcinogenic to humans
• Group 3: Unclassifiable as to carcinogenicity in humans
• Group 4: Probably not carcinogenic to humans

“IARC says you can enjoy your yoga class, but don’t breathe air (Class I carcinogen), sit near a sun-filled window (Class I), drink wine or coffee (Class I and Class 2A,), eat grilled food (Class 2A), or apply aloe vera (Class 2B),” Carpenter noted. “And if you are a hairdresser or do shiftwork (both Class 2A), you should seek a new career.”

The American Cancer Society notes that testing “candidate carcinogens” can be difficult, so most of the substances are listed as being of “probable, possible or unknown risk.”

“The lists themselves say nothing about how likely it is that an agent will cause cancer. Carcinogens do not cause cancer at all times, under all circumstances,” the ACS says on its website. “Some may only be carcinogenic if a person is exposed in a certain way (for example, swallowing it as opposed to touching it). Some may only cause cancer in people who have a certain genetic makeup. Some of these agents may lead to cancer after only a very small exposure, while others might require intense exposure over many years…. Even if a substance or exposure is known or suspected to cause cancer, this does not necessarily mean that it can or should be avoided at all costs…. If you have questions…be sure to ask your doctor.”

Previous studies have purported to show a link between processed meat consumption, cancer and cardiovascular disease. Stakeholders in the meat industry have argued those studies are usually based on unreliable data, and any dietary issues should be addressed on a case-by-case basis between doctors and their patients.

The industry notes there are benefits to meat consumption as part of a balanced diet. Meat is a complete protein, containing all the amino acids the body needs. Meat also contains heme iron that is more readily absorbed than non-heme iron in plants.

“Followers of the Mediterranean diet eat double the recommended amount of processed meats,” Carpenter said. “People in countries where the Mediterranean diet is followed, like Spain, Italy and France, have some of the longest lifespans in the world and excellent health.

“If this is actually IARC’s decision it simply cannot be applied to people’s health because it considers just one piece of the health puzzle: theoretical hazards. Risks and benefits must be considered together before telling people what to eat, drink, drive, breathe, or where to work,” he added.