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Headlines blaring that processed and red meat causes cancer have made this steak-and-bacon-loving nation collectively reach for the Rolaids. Vegans are in full party mode, and the media is in a feeding frenzy. But there is more to this story than meets the (rib)eye.
With United Nations climate talks beginning in a few weeks in Paris, the cancer warning seems particularly well timed. Environmental activists have long sought to tie food to the fight against global warming. Now the doomsayers who want to take on modern agriculture, a considerable source of greenhouse-gas emissions, can employ an additional scare tactic: Meat production sickens the planet; meat consumption sickens people.
Late last month, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)—part of the World Health Organization, an arm of the U.N.—concluded that red meat, like beef and pork, is “probably carcinogenic” to humans, and that processed meat is an even greater cancer threat. The IARC placed foods like bacon, sausage and hot dogs in the same carcinogen category as cigarettes and plutonium.
The working group assessed “more than 800 epidemiological studies that investigated the association of cancer with consumption of red meat or processed meat in many countries.” But support for the IARC’s sweeping conclusion is flimsy at best.
First, the report largely addresses only one cancer—colorectal—while making passing mention of other cancers, like stomach and prostate. Yet the evidence linking red meat and colorectal cancer is unconvincing. The authors write that “positive associations were seen with high versus low consumption of red meat in half of those studies”—hardly enough conclusive evidence to justify a stern cancer warning.
The working group even admits in the same paper that “there is limited evidence for the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat” and “no clear association was seen in several of the high quality studies.” Despite this, the agency placed red meat in its second-highest carcinogen category, alongside DDT and the human papillomavirus, HPV.
The case against processed meat is dubious, too. According to the IARC report, each 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. That might sound scary, but the absolute risk is what really matters. As an example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 2% of 40-year-olds will develop colorectal cancer over the next 30 years of their lives. What the IARC study suggests is a slightly higher rate—say, 2.4% over 30 years—for those 40-year-olds who tear through a 16-ounce package of bacon every week without fail.
A doctor with the IARC acknowledged in a news release announcing the findings that “for an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small.” But that statement—widely overlooked in most media coverage—didn’t stop the agency from putting processed meat in its highest category of carcinogens, alongside mustard gas and formaldehyde.
Sensationalist reporting makes processed meat sound more dangerous than even the IARC report claims. A headline at NBC News reads: “Ham, Sausages Cause Cancer; Red Meat Probably Does, Too, WHO Group Says.” Another by the national desk at Cox Media Group runs: “Bacon poses same cancer risk as cigarettes, world health group claims.” This is a case where many journalists and policy makers fail to give proper scrutiny to claims that advance the prevailing political narrative. When a report advises eating less meat, few bother to check the facts, because the conclusion is already popular among them and assumed true.
Now we get to the connection between climate alarmism and the meat-is-bad movement. In advance of the Paris climate talks, the World Health Organization released a lengthy report about climate pollutants and global health risks. The section on agriculture discusses the need to direct consumers away from foods whose production emits high levels of greenhouse gases: “A key action with large potential climate and health benefits is to facilitate a shift away from high-GHG foods—many of which are of animal origin—and towards healthy, low-GHG (often plant-based) alternatives.”
The report specifically mentions red and processed meat: “In affluent populations, shifting towards diets based on careful adherence to public health recommendations—including reduced consumption of red and processed meat and/or other animal-sourced foods in favor of healthier plant-based alternatives—has the potential to both reduce GHG emissions and improve population health.”
How would this shift in consumers’ tastes be produced? “Experimental and modeling studies demonstrate that food pricing interventions have the ability to influence food choice,” the report states, before favorably citing a study in the United Kingdom of “taxing all food and drinks with above-average GHG emissions.”
Much of this is aimed at the U.S., which is the world’s top producer of beef and its third-largest producer of pork. Americans, along with Australians and Argentines, are among the world’s biggest per capita meat-eaters. Now climate busybodies can shout that meat causes cancer and is as bad for the person eating it as it is for the planet.
In other words, meat is a double threat that governments should contain. Hang on to your T-bones and sausages, folks.
Ms. Kelly, a cooking instructor and food writer, lives in Orland Park, Ill. Mr. Stier leads the risk analysis division at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C.