Processed meat and cancer: Let's cut the nonsense

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Over-the-top media headlines and industry responses have left an equally bad taste, writes Nathan Gray.
Over-the-top media headlines and industry responses have left an equally bad taste, writes Nathan Gray.

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After reviewing years of research that had suggested a link, yesterday the WHO classified processed meat as carcinogenic. Cue sensationalist headlines and huge industry backlash against these ‘obviously biased claims’. Can both sides please cut the nonsense?

The media says scoffing a sausage is as bad as smoking or asbestos. The industry says the claims are biased and nonsense. The truth, as usual, is quite simple – and somewhere in the rather mundane middle.

Put simply, there is an established and scientifically valid link between regular consumption of processed meat and certain cancers.

That does not mean eating a slice of cured ham will kill you – in fact, there are health benefits to moderate meat consumption. And it certainly does not mean that burgers should carry tobacco style cancer warnings.

Blurred lines

Yesterday’s news​ that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) found consumption of processed meats to be ‘carcinogenic to humans​’ caused a whitewash of overly simplistic and sensationalised column inches, and huge backlash from an industry that feels under attack.

In the 24 hours since the announcement, I received a number of ‘responses’ from trade associations and public relations agencies representing the interests of farmers, the meat industry, and other players in the food chain. While some of these responses raise valid points, many of them have one worrying thing in common; they are full of nonsense claims of ‘biased findings’ and that the science is undecided or misrepresented.

It’s not. The findings are pretty conclusive, and to claim otherwise smacks of the sort of ‘muddy water’ tactics many big industries have been accused of when under threat.

In this case, responses included trying to lower and belittle a considered official WHO conclusion as ‘the latest claim’, and proposing that the IARC finding is the result of “a selective review of studies chosen to support a predetermined conclusion.”

The IARC’s conclusions come after more than 20 top independent researchers spent more than six months assessing the best possible evidence. Its findings can be trusted, and to question it is nonsense of the highest order, thrown out by an industry that wants to try and counter scientific rigour and fact with claims of ‘junk science’.

But for me, the worst part of all of this is that there was a much better option for the industry – a valid and reassuring point to be made. A point about understanding the risks that barely anybody mentioned.

And that brings me to the media headlines…

Let’s not forget that the media is also in the wrong here. Ridiculous headlines that claim the Group 1 listing of ‘carcinogenic to humans​’ means eating some cured ham or a bacon sandwich carries the same risk as other things on the list like smoking or asbestos highlight a profound lack of understanding of what the IARC and WHO conclusions say at best, and complete disregard of the facts in order to sell more papers and generate more clicks at worst.

This overreaction is because of one simple, but easily avoidable misunderstanding. It is this misunderstanding that should really​ have been the focus of ‘industry responses’.

And here it is: While the IARC conclusion does mean there is an established link between processed meat and cancer risk, it in no way assesses how much risk​.

Actually, the risks in absolute terms are much lower than most people think, and are certainly lower than many every day activities, jobs, and other occurrences.

In a Cancer Research UK post​ on the WHO findings, Professor David Phillips from King's College London, uses a simple analogy of ‘banana skins’ and ‘accidents’ to make the point that an IARC listing does not mean there is a huge risk of cancer.

A few of the 118 'Group 1' items

  • outdoor air pollution
  • working as a painter
  • salted fish (Chinese style)
  • alcoholic beverages
  • asbestos
  • smoking
  • arsenic
  • the combined contraceptive pill
  • plutonium
  • ionising radiation
  • neutron radiation
  • processed meat

Think of banana skins. They definitely can cause accidents … but in practice this doesn’t happen very often (unless you work in a banana factory). And the sort of harm you can come to from slipping on a banana skin isn’t generally as severe as, say, being in a car accident.

But under a hazard identification system like IARC’s, ‘banana skins’ and ‘cars’ would come under the same category – they both definitely do cause accidents.

When you look at some of the other things that are confirmed as cancer causing (listed at to the right) it surely becomes even clearer that not everything in this list carries the same risk of developing cancer.

Does a glass of wine offer the same risk of cancer as plutonium? Obviously not.​ Does exposure to neutron radiation offer the same risk as the contraceptive pill? I certainly hope not.

So why say is it completely OK for multiple print, online, TV and radio reports to repeatedly state that processed meat is as bad for you as smoking or asbestos?

It’s not. The risks are very different. Smoking increases your relative risk of lung cancer by 2,500% while 50 grams of processed meat adds 18% to your relative risk of colorectal cancer. In terms of absolute risk, that's your chances going from five out of 100 to six out of 100. This is the important point that a huge chunk of media and industry forgot.

A better understanding of the report, coupled with the ‘everything in moderation’ response would have been a winner here … but it was ignored in favour of sensationalism and nonsense claims of bias; which is a shame.


Nathan Gray is the science editor for FoodNavigator and NutraIngredients. He has written on key areas of food science and nutrition policy impacting the global food and nutritional supplements industry – including flavour formulation, sugar and salt reduction, gut health, and the links between nutrition and disease states. Nathan has a degree in Human Biosciences. 

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