Red meat cancer fears played down by industry

Research that labels processed meats as carcinogenic to humans has been played down by food and medical experts. 

According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) report, red meat was identified as “probably carcinogenic to humans” following what it describes as “substantial epidemiological data showing a positive association between consumption of red meat and colorectal cancer”. The IARC research also found positive associations between the consumption of red meat and pancreatic and prostate cancer.

The IARC’s working group also classified processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans’, placing it in the same category as asbestos, second-hand tobacco smoke and gamma radiation. It defines processed meat as “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or any other process that enhances the flavour or improves preservation”.

The research was carried out by a working group of 22 scientists from ten different countries. The team reviewed over 800 studies that went back to 2004.

Maureen Strong, nutrition manager at AHDB said: “IARC isn’t saying eating red and processed meat as part of a balanced diet causes cancer: no single food causes cancer. Nor is it saying it’s as dangerous as smoking, which Cancer Research UK has pointed out today. IARC itself has said that the risk from processed meat remains small.

“The government looked at the same evidence in 2010 and recommended people eat no more than 70g of red and processed meat a day, and that’s exactly what the vast majority of us are eating. The government has already said that this advice is not changing. IARC’s findings suggest that eating 50g of processed meat brings a small increase in risk. However average consumption in the UK is just 17g per day. People would need to eat three times their current levels to increase their risk.”

Professor Ian Johnson of the Institute of Food Research said meat consumption is just one of many factors that could cause cancer.

“IARC has concluded that the evidence in favour of an association between processed meat consumption and cancer, probably because of the ingredients used in processing, meets their criteria for placing this class of foods on the list of recognised human carcinogens. It is important to emphasise however that this classification reflects the strength of the evidence for an effect, not the actual size of the risk.

“Meat consumption probably is one of many factors contributing to the high rates of bowel cancer seen in America, Western Europe and Australia, but the mechanism is poorly understood, and the effect is much smaller than, for example, that of cigarette smoking on the risk of lung cancer. It is also worth noting that there is little or no evidence that vegetarians in the UK have a lower risk of bowel cancer than meat-eaters.”

Professor Tim Key, Cancer Research UK’s epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, said: “We’ve known for some time about the probable link between red and processed meat and bowel cancer, which is backed by substantial evidence.

“This decision doesn’t mean you need to stop eating any red and processed meat. But if you eat lots of it you may want to think about cutting down. You could try having fish for your dinner rather than sausages, or choosing to have a bean salad for lunch over a BLT.

“Eating a bacon bap every once in a while isn’t going to do much harm - having a healthy diet is all about moderation. Overall red and processed meat cause fewer cases of cancer in the UK than some other lifestyle factors. And by far the biggest risk to your health is smoking – causing over a quarter of cancer deaths in the UK and nearly one in five cancer cases.”

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