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Meat Industry Responds To WHO Cancer Report


The makers of processed meat are not happy. They are responding to research saying that meat products correlate with a higher risk of cancer. And yes, that includes bacon. The study comes from a panel of researchers at the World Health Organization who reviewed more than 800 different studies to come up with their own conclusion. NPR's Yuki Noguchi is covering this story. Hi, Yuki.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And so what is the conclusion that has the meat industry unhappy?

NOGUCHI: The WHO is saying processed meats like sausage and ham do correlate with colorectal and about a dozen other types of cancer. They say the risk to an individual eating these products might be small. But it increases - the risk increases - as you eat more. And that might sound like a mild warning, but to the meat industry, it was like a siren.

INSKEEP: Although, I want to ask about that because it's not shocking that bacon, for example, might be seen as unhealthy in some ways, even if it's got a healthy amount of protein. How did the industry respond to all this?

NOGUCHI: Well, they're calling it, in some cases, alarmist overreach. And I think that's because for all the moderate-sounding language, the WHO did declare processed meats a carcinogen. It gave processed meats a Category One rating, which is the same classification that it gives to cigarette smoke. Of course, tobacco is many times more carcinogenic than bacon or ham. And the meat industry was prepared. You know, they knew this was coming. And even before the study was released, it put up websites, you know, with its own counter claims and counter studies. The industry says in order to understand the real risk, you have to put such studies in context. And so here is what Shalene McNeill, director of Human Nutrition Research at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association had to say.

SHALENE MCNEILL: These are studies that draw correlation, not causation. So these are studies that cannot be used to determine cause and effect.

NOGUCHI: And they go sort of further saying that not only is meat safe, but it's an important part of a balanced diet. And the WHO did concede that unprocessed red meats do have some nutritional value.

INSKEEP: OK, help me out here. When they correlation, not causation, they're saying that the studies find that people who eat lots of processed meat get more cancer. But maybe the speculation would be they do something else that would lead to the cancer - some other behavior?

NOGUCHI: Right, right, so the industry groups are trying to sort of attack the scientific research behind the WHO's study as well. And they say that these cancer studies are often flawed because they don't take into account other risk factors that might include things like tobacco or lack of exercise or not eating your fruits and vegetables - you know, whatever it may be. But there are studies that do control for these things. And those studies likely played a role in the conclusions of this WHO report. I mean, just to clarify, what the WHO did here wasn't original research. Its panel looked at more than 800 other studies to say, OK, where is a preponderance of evidence? What does it suggest? And it suggests there are some carcinogenic qualities. By the way, that conclusion had already been reached by the American Cancer Society, the World Cancer Research Fund, both of which recommend limiting your consumption of red meat.

INSKEEP: OK, so what do those conclusions mean for dietary guidelines here in the United States?

NOGUCHI: Well, it'll be interesting to see how it impacts consumer behavior generally and maybe even specifically these federal recommendations. The USDA's guidelines already do mention that increased intake of processed meats is correlated with colorectal cancer, but it doesn't recommend a specific limit.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Yuki Noguchi. Yuki, happy eating.

NOGUCHI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.