WHO’s meat warning described as alarmist


A major point about a recent World Health Organization report on links between cancer and meat got little attention.

It’s classifications of cancer-causing substances in a manner makes all seem equally harmful, leading to unnecessary scares.

The report two weeks ago today was an analysis by 22 international experts of 800 research findings.

They worked under auspices of WHO’s research arm, the International Agency For Research on Cancer. IARC.

It said processed meat cause cancer; red meat probably does.

Newspapers screamed. For example: “Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes”—The Guardian, UK.

The information about the links, notably with bowel cancer, wasn’t new.

The significance was WHO put a stamp on it and governments, health authorities, et al, often act on the organisation’s advice.

In countries where beef and processed meats are big business and central to culinary, criticism was swift.

Australia’s Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said equating beef and cigarettes as causes of cancer is “a farce.”

Mockingly: “If you got everything that the World Health Organization said was carcinogenic and took it out of your daily requirements, well you are kind of heading back to a cave.”


In the United States where beef and processed meats beat the apple pie in the abdominal battle field and beef industry is $90-billion worth, reports media, the IARC warning got a dismissal.

The Post wrote: The North American Meat Institute, an industry group, called the WHO report “dramatic and alarmist overreach,” and it mocked the IARC’s previous work, which treats coffee, sunlight and wine as potential cancer hazards.

In nutritional science, meat is red or white depending on percentage by mass of myoglobin—a blood muscle oxygen-storing cell.

Hence, beef, veal, lamb, goat, mutton, and pork are red; fish and chicken white.

In culinary it’s another story. Pork might be white; a cockerel’s thigh, red.

The WHO report says processed meat includes hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, and any other meat that has been cured, smoked, salted, or otherwise changed. Not a word on safe consumption amount of any meat.

The confusion arises from the classifications—five groups: Group 1 for substances the IARC has sufficient evidence causes cancer; Group 2A, for those that probably do. Forget other groups for now.

Writing for the Atlantic Magazine Newsletter, Ed Yong, a former IARC employee, noted the classifications are “based on strength of evidence not degree of risk.”


Result! Risky substances end up in groups in contradictory ways.

In other words, substances that don’t cause equal cases of cancer in 1000 persons—tobacco causes more than processed meat—end up in the same group.

That’s a result of communication deficiencies in what he called “scientific organisations that are confusogenic to humans” and suggested a different system.

Commenting on the report and recapping scientifically known links between red meat and processes meats with cancers, Casey Dunlop of Cancer Research UK, wrote: “What it does mean is that regularly eating large amounts of red and processed meat, over a long period of time, is probably not the best approach if you are aiming to live a long and healthy life.”

She suggests “being sensible,” certainly an “uncofusonegic to humans” point.