Official: processed meat causes cancer and red meat probably does

By : Eating Better
Oct 26, 2015

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, has confirmed that processed meats such as bacon, ham & sausages, do cause cancer, and that red meat (which includes beef, lamb and pork) is a probable carcinogen.

A Working Group of 22 experts from 10 countries convened by the IARC reviewed more than 800 studies that investigated associations of red and processed meat consumption with more than a dozen types of cancer.

Its authoritative conclusion is that processed meat has been classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1). This means that there is sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer. The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. About 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide can be attributed to diets high in processed meat.

For red meat the classification given is ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’ (Group 2A). This is based on there being limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect. This association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.

“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,” says Dr Kurt Straif, Head of the IARC Monographs Programme. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

”These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat,” says Dr Christopher Wild, Director of IARC. “At the same time, red meat has nutritional value. Therefore, these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.

Eating Better says: 'This latest authoritative evidence from the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) provides yet more compelling reasons to eat less and better meat. Not only would eating less meat, particularly high levels of processed meat, help prevent cancer, it would also help prevent dangerous climate change, stop more animals being kept in factory farms and help us feed the world more fairly.

'Eating Better is calling on Public Health England to review their advice to the public and health professionals on meat consumption in light of this new evidence, and for new advice to be incorporated into standards for school meals and other public sector catering.'


The full text from the IARC's Working Group can be read here: Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. 

See here for IARC Press Release and Q & A.

Processed Meat & Cancer: What you need to know from Cancer Research UK includes this helpful advice on cutting down.