In a report published today, an expert panel at the World Health Organization made two findings about meat:
Red meatAfter thoroughly reviewing the accumulated scientific literature, a Working Group of 22 experts from 10 countries convened by the IARC Monographs Programme classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect.This association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.Processed meatProcessed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.
These findings probably surprised no one, since anyone who did a similar review of the science would come to similar conclusions. The magnitude of the effect of processed meat on intestinal illness became clear in a study published two years ago. Indeed, meat industry lobbying groups around the world were expecting the WHO announcement and had their rebuttals prepared in advance. With the huge amount of money spent advertising meat every week, it is hardly surprising that newspaper stories gave more space to the point of view of the meat industry than to that of nutritionists and cancer researchers.
I am not sure many people will be convinced by the p.r. blitz, though. When a butcher says meat is good for you, the conflict of interest is pretty obvious. When cancer researchers say at least half of cancer in and around the intestine appears to be caused by eating meat, there is no comparable conflict of interest.
The WHO report will have little immediate effect on consumers but will eventually lead to changes in institutional food. I am not about to tell people to stop eating meat any more than I would tell them not to eat Halloween candy. Just don’t try to live on that kind of food. All indications are, that’s an approach to food that won’t end well.