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World health panel links processed, red meat to cancer

There isn't a piece of toast, a potato or even a doughnut that some Americans won't try to embellish with bacon.

Most folks probably know it's not good for them. But now an influential world health body has added bacon to a category with tobacco, asbestos and arsenic.


It can cause cancer.

The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer said Monday that processed meat such as bacon, hot dogs and baloney can increase the risk of colon and other kinds of cancer, and steaks and other red meat likely can too.


A panel of 22 experts from 10 countries reviewed more than 800 studies and concluded that processed meats were carcinogenic to humans. The panel labeled red meat — including beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat — as probably carcinogenic.

That's not to say that eating a sausage biscuit or pastrami on rye is as dangerous as lighting up a cigarette, but eating such things regularly makes some cancers more likely.

"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," Dr. Kurt Straif, the WHO program head, said in a statement.

High-temperature cooking and processing of meat creates carcinogenic chemicals, according to the panel's findings, published in the Lancet Oncology.

For each 50-gram portion of processed meat (roughly two slices of deli meat) eaten a day, the risk of colon cancer increases by 18 percent, the panel said.

The scientists recommended people limit their intake of meat but not eliminate it because it can provide some nutritional value.

Doctors aren't likely to tell their patients to stop eating meat entirely, said Dr. Ken Miller, a medical oncologist at Sinai Hospital's Alvin & Lois Lapidus Cancer Institute.

Miller said doctors have been giving warnings about eating too much meat for years, based on guidelines from several U.S. health organizations, including the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association. The new designation may help get the message out that too much red and processed meat can lead to cancer, as well as other conditions such as heart disease.


At the same time, he said the data indicates that smoking and air pollution pose far greater risks for death, for example.

"You can still have a bologna sandwich," Miller said.

"The take-home message is eating small amounts of processed meats occasionally isn't harmful, but it's better to have a diet rich in other foods," he said. "We can substitute a lot of plant-based foods, and that can mean better heart health, less cancer and general well-being."

Meat consumption has been on the rise in the United States, though that is largely because poultry consumption has risen faster than red meat eating has declined, government data shows.

Beef consumption has been dropping since 1976, when the average person consumed more than 94 pounds a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By 2014 it was just over 54 pounds. Combined with pork, total red meat averaged almost 102 pounds per person that year.

That compares with average per-person poultry consumption of just over 100 pounds a year.


The designation does come amid renewed enthusiam for bacon, which had withered in popularity over concerns about its fat content, and for locally sourced, artisanal meats, including sausages. In Baltimore, chef Spike Gjerde opened Parts & Labor, a butcher shop and restaurant in Remington, to capitalize on the trend.

But bacon is appearing everywhere from stuffed inside waffles at IHOP to crusted on maple-glazed doughnut squares at Dunkin Dounts.

Groups including the U.S. Cattlemen's Association denounced the World Health Organization's new designations in a statement, saying the group's panel discounts the "integral role red meat play in any healthy diet."

The group also challenged the scientists ability to review meat's link to cancer.

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"One item remains clear and accepted across the scientific and medical communities: Cancer is a complex disease, and no one single food-item has been proven to cause any type of cancer," said Linda Chezem, the association's dietary and nutrition committee chair. "The [panel's] 'report' is unrealistic in isolating a single food item as a cause of cancer.

"Scientific research continues to maintain that a healthy lifestyle is achieved through moderation in one's diet, which includes beef, and an active lifestyle."


If that moderation means just 15 percent less meat, it could make a difference, according to Dr. Robert Lawrence, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and a professor at the Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Lawrence is also scientific adviser to Meatless Monday, a public health initative advocating for a day without meat consumption to reduce the risk of chronic disease.

"Even minor increases in consumption of red and processed meats have been found to elevate an individual's risk of developing colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer," he said in a statement Monday. "Consumers should not only limit their consumption of processed and red meats, but work toward at least a 15 percent reduction of all meat consumption.

"The Meatless Monday campaign is a good and easy way to reduce meat consumption one day a week to improve individual health and support the environment."