By Richard Thompson
Meat industry professionals are seeing red as media coverage of a recent World Health Organization report tying red meat consumption with colorectal cancer continues to confuse consumers. Media responses to the report have made mountains out of meatballs, creating confusion on what makes up a balanced diet for consumers, says Eric Mittenthal, Vice President of Public Affairs at North American Meat Institute, but will not, in the end, much affect the meat industry.
The report, headed by a panel from the International Agency Research on Cancer (IARC) and released by WHO, concluded that for large numbers of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance. Mittenthal, whose agency represents processors and meat packers throughout the country, sees that despite all of the sensational headlines used by the media, consumers and meat industry professionals are still finding the report’s results hard to swallow: “This confirms our position that the report was over-reaching and alarmist and the fact that the [IARC] panelists were not even unanimous about the findings supports [our position].”
According to Jeff Stier, Risk Analysis Director at the National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR), the report confuses readers by not accurately explaining the difference between actual and theoretical risks. “Correlation is different than causation.” warns Stier, “Even if they are right, all they are alleging is that if you eat a lot of [processed meat] your whole life, you have a very slight increased risk for cancer. But if you’re eating that much meat anyway, you might be more concerned with cardiovascular disease, weight problems and diabetic issues. Not colorectal cancer.”
In the report, the experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent, but Mittenthal and Stier dispute that finding as inaccurate and poorly worded.
Stier, whose job is to direct the risk analysis division of NCPPR and help translate information into good public policy, says that using the 18 percent without understanding the context is like saying that living near a NASA facility triples the chances someone will be hit by an errant spaceship. “It may be true, but doesn’t mean much,” says Stier.
“Our industry supplies consumers, and they are the bottom line, and it’s clear by how people are reacting to this that they are rolling their eyes. Most people take this information with a grain of salt – which, I’m sure, somehow can cause cancer too,” says Mittenthal.
While public affair officials like Mittenthal are concerned over the public relations impact of the study, industry professionals from the National Cattleman’s Beef Association (NCBA) and American Meat Sciences Association (AMSA) are branding the science behind the report as inaccurate and incomplete. Dr. Shalene McNeill, PhD., RD, Beef Checkoff Nutrition Scientist and Registered Dietician for the National Cattleman’s Beef Association observed the IARC process, “IARC…doesn’t always represent consensus in the scientific community. After seven days of deliberation…IARC was unable to reach a consensus agreement from a group of 22 experts in the field of cancer research, something that IARC… typically achieves.”
“We know that cancer risk is not about diet alone and the report simply adds to people’s confusion about cancer,” says Deidrea Mabry, MS, Director of Scientific Communications and Technical Programs for the American Meat Sciences Association (AMSA).
The IARC findings insinuate that for every 50 grams of processed meat (or about two pieces of bacon) comes an 18 percent increase of getting colorectal cancer, but the reality is more mundane, according to Stier. During a lifetime of eating 50 grams of processed meat a day, every day, a person has an estimated 18 percent increase of having colorectal cancer versus someone who didn’t follow the same diet (an actual individual risk increase of 1 or 2 percent over the course of their life). To put that in perspective, red and processed meat are among 940 agents reviewed by IARC – consisting of air, aloe vera, coffee and wine, among others – that pose some level of theoretical hazard if used over-abundantly. McNeill explains, “The available scientific evidence simply does not support a causal relationship between red or processed meat and any type of cancer.”
Now that the WHO report is out, pro-meat agencies like NCPPR will continue to provide scientifically accurate information to consumers. “This is what I do for a living; stuffing toothpaste back in the tube,” says Stier.
As for national regulatory agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, no action is planned in response to the report or its findings. According to a press release by the FDA, the agency hasn’t had an opportunity to review the IARC monograph report and that IARC does not recommend regulations, legislation or public health interventions. On top of that, the NIH National Toxicology Program (NTP) report on Carcinogens has not looked at red or processed meats nor have those substances been nominated for review for the next edition.
Mabry seasons her concerns with prudence, “Consumers have seen beyond the sensational, and often inaccurate headlines….we know that cancer risk is not about diet alone and…it’s easy to get caught up in a report or a study.” According to Mabry, what’s most important is that consumers understand eating a healthy and well-balanced diet – including meat (both red and processed) – is supported by the strongest science available.
Her words appear to have resonated with WHO and IARC as well, since at time of press, the agencies have started backpedaling on how the report was worded and subsequently reported on via a Twitter account. Sample tweets include: “The #cancer review on processed meat does not ask ppl to stop eating meat, but to reduce intake to lower cancer risk.” They even went as far as to say there was a “shortcoming” to the classification system that processed meats were placed in.
For McNeill, this report changes nothing to what everyone in and out of the industry has already known for years, “As a registered dietitian and mother, my advice hasn’t changed. Eat a balanced diet, which includes lean meats like beef, maintain a healthy weight, be physically active and, please, don’t smoke.”