Pry bacon from my cold, dead hands (commentary)Pry bacon from my cold, dead hands (commentary)
October 30, 2015
*Chuck Jolley is president of Jolley & Associates, a marketing and public relations firm that concentrates on the food industry.
SO, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued a statement that red meat kinda sorta maybe might cause an extremely slight increase in cancer, yet processed meats — things like sausage and bacon — are the dietary equivalent of a pack-a-day smoking habit or camping out in an asbestos mine.
Does a ham sandwich for lunch bring the same health risk as Carlton Fisk's suggestion that "a pinch between your cheek and gum" is just a relaxing break in the hectic day of a major league baseball player? Does comparing an after-dinner stogie every evening to a rasher of bacon with breakfast every morning pass the "sniff" test?
Unlike a bite of bacon, the IARC statement is hard to swallow. Who are they, and what are the numbers behind this research?
First, IARC is an intergovernmental agency within the U.N. World Health Organization. Its role is to conduct and coordinate research into the causes of cancer.
To determine the possible health effects of red and processed meats, IARC analyzed 800 studies from around the world and decided that there was "sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer."
I will emphasize that the agency condemned processed meat — not red meat — as a possible cause of an increased risk of colorectal cancer and recommended limiting consumption of lunch or breakfast meats. Its list of products to be stink-eyed at the dinner table includes "meat that has been salted, cured, fermented or smoked: hot dogs, sausages, corned beef, dried meat like beef jerky or South African biltong, canned meat or meat-based sauces."
After seven days of deliberation in Lyon, France, IARC was unable to reach a consensus about studies from a group of 22 experts in the field of cancer research, even though this is something IARC has proudly highlighted that it strives for and typically achieves. In this case, it had to settle for "majority" agreement.
To see what "majority" agreements are worth, check almost every political decision coming out of the House and Senate.
IARC cited research attributing about 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide to diets high in processed meat, which seems to be in the range of about 41 lb. per year, or a small bite more than 3.5 strips of bacon per day. Diets high in red meat might cause as many as 50,000 more cases of cancer. Maybe. They're not sure. There are some indications that those numbers might not stand.
The agency put those numbers in perspective, though, estimating 1 million cancer deaths per year due to tobacco smoking, 600,000 from alcohol use and more than 200,000 due to air pollution. Just know that most people around the world eat meat; smoking and alcohol abuse fall far behind that number.
Here's what people are saying:
* Kurt Straif, IARC official: "In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance."
* Betsy Booren, North American Meat Institute vice president of scientific affairs: "Followers of the Mediterranean diet eat double the recommended amount of processed meats. People in countries where the Mediterranean diet is followed, like Spain, Italy and France, have some of the longest life spans in the world and excellent health."
* Dr. Roger A. Clemens, associate director, regulatory science program, University of Southern California School of Pharmacy: "These rulings discuss hazard, but they're reported as risk. For example, sunlight (hazard) is needed for vitamin D synthesis, yet excessive exposure increases one's risk of skin cancer. Alcohol is a known liver toxin (hazard), yet when consumed in moderation (exposure), it reduces risk of developing adverse cardiovascular events. There are many more examples like these. ... Importantly, IARC notes that its role is to identify hazard, not causality."
* James Coughlin, nutritional toxicologist (quoted in a news release issued by the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn.): "Given the weak associations in human studies and lack of evidence in animal studies, it is hard to reconcile the committee's vote. In my experience as an observer to an IARC working group, the process typically involves scientists who have previously published research on the substance being reviewed and may have a vested interest in defending their own research. In the case of red and processed meat, the overall scientific evidence simply does not support their conclusion."
* Professor Ian Johnson, Institute of Food Research in the U.K.: "It is certainly very inappropriate to suggest that any adverse effects of bacon or sausages on the risk of bowel cancer is comparable to the danger of tobacco smoke, which is loaded with known carcinogens."
From the Twitterverse:
* "Devastating that scientists say bacon causes cancer and we face the fact that we'll have to give up science" (Paul Bassett Davies).
* "Breaking: World Health Organization says hot dogs, bacon, processed meats cause cancer; U.S. prepares to invade World Health Organization" (Rex Huppke).
* "Keep bacon, abolish the World Health Organization" (Spikedonline).
* "Kevin Bacon changes his name to Kevin Quinoa as a precaution" (Claire Hopkin).
* "World's oldest woman, 116, eats bacon daily" (NPR via Barry Carpenter).
* "Just passed three school kids outside a supermarket in their lunch hour and they said: "Excuse me, Mr., could you buy us a packet of #Bacon?'" (Lee Hurst).
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