Time for action!


Last month the World Health Organisation (WHO) confirmed that processed meats such as bacon, ham and sausages, do cause bowel cancer and that red meats such as beef, pork and lamb, probably do too... no real surprises there!

Red meat lined up on surfaces

Last month the World Health Organisation (WHO) confirmed that processed meats such as bacon, ham and sausages, do cause bowel cancer and that red meats such as beef, pork and lamb, probably do too... no real surprises there!

Just ahead of World Vegan Day (November 1), WHO announced that eating just 50 grams of processed meat (less than two slices of bacon) a day increases the risk of bowel cancer by 18 per cent. They also found an increase of 100g of red meat a day increases the risk of bowel cancer by 17 per cent. They also identified links between red meat and pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer, and processed meat and stomach cancer.

This is not really anything new; Viva! Health have been warning people about the links between meat and cancer for years. However, WHO’s classification of processed meat as carcinogenic is new and the announcement hit the headlines around the world and should lead to a change in the government’s public health guidelines. 

In October, 22 scientists from ten countries met at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC – the cancer agency of the WHO), in Lyon, France, to evaluate the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. Here are the main findings from their report:

  • Overall, the Working Group classified consumption of processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” (Group 1) on the basis of sufficient evidence for colorectal cancer. Additionally, a positive association with the consumption of processed meat was found for stomach cancer.
  • The Working Group classified consumption of red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2A).
  • In making this evaluation, the Working Group took into consideration all the relevant data, including the substantial epidemiological data showing a positive association between consumption of red meat and colorectal cancer and the strong mechanistic evidence. Consumption of red meat was also positively associated with pancreatic and with prostate cancer.

The announcement was big news, reported around the globe. The meat industry responded by promptly dismissing the claims saying the report was unscientific and that the risk is not so great. They must now realise that they have lost the argument and are trying to defend the indefensible.  

How big is the risk?

The risk increases with the amount of meat consumed; each 50g of processed meat per day increases the risk of cancer by 18 per cent and each 100g of red meat per day increases the risk by 17 per cent. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.” says Dr Kurt Straif, Head of the IARC Monographs Programme. 

Currently, the government advises meat-eaters to eat no more than 70g red and processed meat a day (that’s around just two slices of bacon). The meat industry likes to point out that average consumption is roughly in-line with this figure. However, this hides the fact that many men and some women eat much more than 70g per day. For example, government figures show that the average intake for men under 65 is 86g and for men over 65 it is 75g. Both exceed the recommended upper limit of 70g.

The ‘no more than 70g per day’ advice followed on directly from a joint report from the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and the AICR published in 2007. The report involved hundreds of experts, who reviewed all the evidence available about the links between food, nutrition, weight gain, overweight and physical activity and the risk of cancer. 

The report stated that the public health goal for the population average consumption of red meat should be no more than 300g a week, very little if any of which to be processed. The personal recommendation, for individuals who eat meat, was set at less than 500g a week, with little, if any, processed meat. So they recommended that it is best to avoid all processed meat, which means no bacon or ham, ever. However, this message has been lost as government advice lumped red and processed meats together as one category.

Obviously, Viva! Health would like to see the government promote a vegan diet for the enormous benefits that would bring. At the very least, they should change current guidelines to clearly warn people about the cancer risks of processed and red meat, including health warning labels for processed and red meat products and to actively encourage people to stop eating them. This would not only help prevent cancer, heart disease and a host of other diseases and illnesses but would also help reduce climate change, reduce the number of animals being kept in factory farms and go towards helping feed the world more fairly.

Viva! Health calls for a reappraisal of official advice encouraging meat consumption and would like to see new public health guidelines established for schools, hospitals and other public sector catering.

The times they are a-changing and the government health advice needs to keep up!


About the Author

Justine Butler

Dr. Justine Butler is the senior health researcher and writer at Viva! She joined as a health campaigner in 2005 after graduating from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology. She also holds a BSc in biochemistry, and a Diploma in nutrition.