World Health Organization Says Processed Meat Causes Cancer

It's been real, bacon.
It's been real, bacon. Photo: Ron Fehling

The claim that red meat causes bowel cancer, especially when processed, isn’t new, but today it’s getting a major new advocate: the World Health Organization. It’s the culmination of a year of deliberations by the U.N. group’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, and it’s frankly jarring when distilled into a headline (the BBC: “Processed Meats Do Cause Cancer”) and looked at in context (as now a group 1 carcinogen, i.e., the really bad stuff like cigarettes, alcohol, asbestos, and car exhaust).

To give the ruling a real-world spin, the group says that having 50 extra grams per day of meat that’s cured, smoked, or loaded with preservatives — that’s about two slices of bacon — ups your chances of getting colorectal cancer by 18 percent. Fatty red meat, meanwhile, is also a risk, though much lower: It’s now in group 2A, or “probably carcinogenic to humans,” the same class as UV rays.

The North American Meat Institute already has something to say about all this, naturally. Per The Guardian:

“It was clear, sitting in the IARC meeting, that many of the panellists were aiming for a specific result despite old, weak, inconsistent, self-reported intake data,” said Betsy Booren, the institute’s vice-president of scientific affairs. “They tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome.”

The trade group also notes that processed meat is just one of 940 different things the IARC claims pose “some level of theoretical ‘hazard.’” But it should be noted the experts themselves are going to great lengths to explain they aren’t advocating for everyone to go vegetarian. As one expert advises, the decision “doesn’t mean you need to stop eating any red and processed meat. But if you eat lots of it you may want to think about cutting down. You could try having fish for your dinner rather than sausages, or choosing to have a bean salad for lunch over a BLT.”


World Health Organization Says Processed Meat Causes Cancer