Processed meat can cause cancer, says WHO experts
Paris: Eating processed
meat can lead to bowel cancer in humans while red meat is a likely cause of the
disease, World Health Organisation (WHO) experts said on Monday in findings
that could sharpen debate over the merits of a meat-based diet.
International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the WHO, put
processed meat such as hot dogs and ham in its group 1 list, which already
includes tobacco, asbestos and diesel fumes, for which there is “sufficient
evidence” of cancer links.
“For an individual, the
risk of developing colorectal (bowel) cancer because of their consumption of
processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat
consumed,” Dr Kurt Straif of the IARC said in a statement.
Red meat, including
beef, lamb and pork, was classified as a ‘probable’ carcinogen in its group 2A
list that also contains glyphosate, the active ingredient in many weed killers.
classification for red meat reflected ‘limited evidence’ that it causes cancer.
The IARC found links mainly with bowel cancer, as was the case for processed
meat, but it also observed associations with pancreatic and prostate cancer.
The agency, whose
findings on meat followed a meeting of health experts in France earlier this
month, estimated each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases
the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 per cent.
The IARC, which was
assessing meat for the first time and reviewed some 800 studies, does not
compare the level of cancer risk associated with products in a given category,
so does not suggest eating meat is as dangerous as smoking, for example.
Health policy in some
countries already calls for consumers to limit intake of red and processed
meat, but the IARC said such advice to consumers was in certain cases focused
on heart disease and obesity.
The preparation of the
IARC’s report has already prompted vigorous reactions from meat industry
groups, which argue meat forms part of a balanced diet and that cancer risk
assessments need to be set in a broader context of environmental and lifestyle
The IARC, which does
not make specific policy recommendations, cited an estimate from the Global
Burden of Disease Project - an international consortium of more than 1,000
researchers - that 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are attributable to
diets high in processed meat.
This compares with
about 1 million cancer deaths per year globally due to tobacco smoking, 600,000
a year due to alcohol consumption, and more than 200,000 each year due to air
pollution, it said.
If the cancer link with
red meat were confirmed, diets rich in red meat could be responsible for 50,000
deaths a year worldwide, according to the Global Burden of Disease Project. (With
inputs from agencies)