Processed meat causes colon cancer, says WHO agency

Packages of bacon at a grocery store in Maryland on Oct 26, 2015.
Packages of bacon at a grocery store in Maryland on Oct 26, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS • Eating sausages, ham and other processed meats causes colon cancer, and red meat "probably" does too, an arm of the World Health Organisation has said.

The findings support "recommendations to limit intake of meat", the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which compiled a review of over 800 studies on the link between a meat diet and cancer, said yesterday.

"In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance," IARC official Kurt Straif said in a statement.

For an individual, the risk of getting cancer from eating processed meat was statistically "small", said the agency, but "increases with the amount of meat consumed".

"Each 50g portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 per cent," said the report compiled by 22 experts from 10 countries.

The evaluation revealed "strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect" for red meat consumption - mainly for cancer of the colon and rectum, but also the pancreas and prostate, said the agency based in Lyon, France.

Red meat, under which IARC includes beef, lamb and pork, was classified as a "probable" carcinogen in its group 2A list that also contains glyphosate, the active ingredient in many weedkillers.

As for processed meat such as sausages, dried and canned meat or meat-based sauces, there is "sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer". As red meat is a key source of nutrition, the results should help governments balance the risk and benefits, said IARC.

IARC cited an estimate from the Global Burden of Disease Project, a consortium of over 1,000 researchers, that 34,000 cancer deaths a year worldwide are attributable to diets high in processed meat, in comparison to about one million cancer deaths a year globally due to tobacco smoking, 600,000 a year from alcohol consumption, and over 200,000 a year due to air pollution, it said.

The IARC report drew vigorous reactions from meat industry groups, with the North American Meat Institute accusing the agency of "dramatic and alarmist over-reach".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2015, with the headline 'Processed meat causes colon cancer, says WHO agency'. Print Edition | Subscribe