WHO classifies processed meat a group 1 carcinogen


Frenzy ensued after the World Health Organization (WHO), declared processed meats a cause of colorectal and conceivably stomach cancer and that red meats are probably also a cause of pancreatic and prostate cancer. “Processed Meats Rank Alongside Smoking as Cancer Causes — WHO” read a headline in The Guardian. “Bacon, Hot Dogs as Bad as Cigarettes” read another. These reports, although based in fact, distort the actual implications of the findings by ignoring the risk-rating practices of WHO.

“For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” commented Kurt Straif, an official with the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, the producer the report. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

According to figures cited by the panel, near 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide can be linked to diets high in processed meats. However, the incidence of colorectal cancer has been declining for 20 years, in part because of colonoscopy screenings.

Processed meat was listed alongside cigarettes, alcohol, asbestos, plutonium, DDT and mustard gas. WHO’s conclusions are consistent with recent findings and recommendations issued by the American Cancer Society and the World Cancer Research Fund. Experts at the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. However, the report, although approved by a majority of the 22 scientists from 10 countries who reviewed more than 800 studies, is not considered conclusive among experts.

Furthermore, WHO’s risk-ranking system is based on the strength of the overall research, not on the risk level of specific products. To add, the link between meat and cancer is muddled by the practice of curing, smoking, fermentation or other methods of processing meat, as they generate chemicals that are carcinogens or suspected carcinogens. Any meat that has been cured, smoked, salted or otherwise changed to enhance flavor or improve preservation is considered processed meat. It is also worth noting that of the more than 900 potential carcinogens tested by W.H.O., only one, a nylon-manufacturing chemical found in water, was not deemed “probably not” a carcinogen.

There also persists the issue of cause or correlation. Are people who eat lots processed meat more likely to engage in risky behaviors that lead to cancer? Are non-meateaters more likely to maintain healthier lifestyles? To this the American Cancer Society says, “it’s not exactly clear.”


Info for this article taken from


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