KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Leaders of several prominent processing companies defended the meat industry in responses to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) report that bacon and processed meats are “carcinogenic to humans based on sufficient evidence,” while consumption of red meat was classified as “probably carcinogenic” to humans.

Mike Martin, director of communications for Wichita, Kan.-based Cargill said the findings weren’t surprising, given the agency’s track record, but the manner in which the information was presented was disappointing.

“Based on supporting research, we believe red and processed meats can safely be included in a balanced, healthy diet,” said Martin in a statement sent to MEAT+POULTRY. “Additionally, there are numerous studies that conclude red and processed meats do not cause cancer. Given IARC’s history of declaring all but one of the 940 items it’s reviewed having links to cancer, the groups in which they placed red (probably causes cancer) and processed meats (a carcinogen) are not surprising. It is, however, disappointing due to the dramatic and alarming manner in which the decisions were made and communicated.

Martin went on to point out that IARC did not conduct new research to support its findings, opting instead to rely on reviews of existing literature and drew conclusions without establishing “causational linkage between red/processed meats and cancer.”

Nor, did IARC consider the many research efforts that underscore the nutritional value of red and processed meats as part of a balanced and healthful diet, as well as other studies concluding red and processed meats can be part of a healthy lifestyle,” Martin said.

Rick Williamson, manager of external communications for Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods Corporation, said the important nutrients in meat far outweigh any theoretical hazard.

“Few foods are as widely consumed across cultures and generations as red and processed meats. Meat is nutrient dense and contains high quality proteins, essential amino acids, thiamin (vitamin B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), vitamin B6 and vitamin B12,” he added.

Williamson noted that the best way to stay healthy and reduce the risk of cancer is to eat a balanced diet, exercise and avoid using tobacco.

“Meat is an essential component of this balanced diet and Americans, on average, currently consume meat at recommended dietary levels,” he said. “At Hormel Foods, we do recognize that more and more consumers today are seeking foods that are minimally processed and have no preservatives.”

Williamson said Hormel’s Health, Science and Wellness Advisory Council will review the report with its scientists and nutrition experts. “However, these experts also understand that this report did not look at the benefits of meat consumption,” Williamson added.

Cameron Bruett, head of corporate communications at JBS USA based in Greeley, Colo., said people around the world have enjoyed the nutritional and health benefits from fresh red meat and other animal-based proteins for thousands of years.

“As proud providers of protein for consumers around the world, we agree with the opinions of many leading scientists regarding the nutritional benefits of meat and are confident that meat will continue to be a part of healthy, balanced diets for generations to come,” Bruett added.

In its study, 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 bacon, hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, beef jerky and other items.

“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, head of the IARC Monographs Programme. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

The IARC Working Group considered more than 800 studies that investigated associations of more than a dozen types of cancer with the consumption of red meat or processed meat in many countries and populations with diverse diets.

While processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1) — joining tobacco smoking and asbestos in that category — the IARC said consumption of processed meat does not mean that it is equally dangerous to smoking and asbestos inhalation. The IARC noted its classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk.