On the IARC, Red Meat, and the Media

Recently, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO) came out with a statement that said, based on a literature review, red meats are probable carcinogens (Group 2A) and processed meats are carcinogenic (Group 1). The short memo can be read here. Other clarifications of what the Groups mean and about the red and processed meats can be found here and here. All of these documents are more revealing than most of the news stories have portrayed the issue. Headlines like, “Bacon is carcinogenic!” lead one to believe that eating bacon will give you cancer. This type of hyperbole leads to a great deal of angst among the readership, most of whom will not read the links I provided above. We have probably all heard the phrase “If it bleeds, it leads” in regard to the media. I am not here to berate the media over the way they cover the stories — they have a job to do and writers have someone to answer to for their performance. In some cases, I think the writers don’t recognize, or don’t care, how their stories can impact other people. Can a negative, and incomplete, story on bacon depress sales, leading to a loss of income for farmers, resulting in layoffs, tarnished careers, bankruptcies, etc. Hmm, it could, but it’s a story so run with it, torpedoes be damned. There are other topics when this has also been true recently, that go beyond the news into another arena altogether. So, the onus is on the reader to separate real news from the hogwash passing off as news these days.

In regards to the red meat story, the IARC says that processed¬†meat is carcinogenic to humans. Do you know what else falls into this group? Alcoholic beverages, diesel engine exhaust, outdoor air pollution, solar radiation, tobacco use, and wood dust among a whole list of other things. One’s exposure to any one of these things will vary by individual, but the IARC is not explicit on how much exposure will lead to cancer expression. They have a guess based on 10 studies (50 grams daily of processed meat leads to an 18% increase in possibility of colorectal cancer). Yet, in fact, they do not know the answer to that. It is a complicated interaction of genes and environment. But, based on the way it is presented in some media articles, processed meat such as bacon must be as dangerous as using tobacco or breathing diesel engine fumes. Right? Well, no. The IARC is not addressing risk and so items within the same group should not be compared.

The IARC states that “high consumption” of red meats may lead to “small increases of risk of several cancers”. In fact, they state that “these risks are small” and do not define “high consumption”. They also state that the evidence is “limited”. Their best guess is that for every daily portion of 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of red meat, cancer risk is elevated by 17%. Overall the classification is rather meaningless unless it can be bound contextually by parameters that make sense and can be employed in everyday life. Essentially the IARC is saying, “We think folks should not eat as much red meat and especially processed meats based on some studies we analyzed. They could, possibly, play a role in cancer development, in some people, in some places…we think…based on the limited evidence available.” Okay, so no big deal, right? Dial back the consumption of red meat. It won’t guarantee you won’t get cancer, but it can’t hurt. But when the media got hold of the story, it took on a life of its own.

Me bashing the media wouldn’t solve anything and there is no reason to do it — in many cases the media is a good outlet for information, but information consumer needs to beware. Every media story starts with a source. If possible, go back to the source to get the straight story, because every media story has a bias (either intentional or unintentional) and an interpretation. That interpretation may be right or wrong or some of both. In any case, this is my interpretation of the IARC red meat story — I hope you will read the provided links to decide for yourself.