WHO report finds processed meat carcinogenic to humans

Prime Minister calls for wide debate, decisions after international cancer watchdog finds processed meat causes colorectal cancer

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, has found that processed meat causes cancer, while red meat is also “probably carcinogenic”.

The full report was published today. In an initial reaction, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat called for wide debate and decisions to tackle the issue.

“The WHO’s classification of processed meat as carcinogenic concerns me as parent, consumer and policymaker. We need wide debate and decisions,” Muscat said.

2,000 persons are diagnosed with cancer every year in Malta. On average, a total of 700 people loose their battle, making cancer the second most common cause of death on the island.

10.6% of Maltese women diagnosed with cancer suffer from colorectal cancer while 12.2% of Maltese men diagnosed with cancer suffer from colorectum cancer.

The IARC evaluated the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat.

After thoroughly reviewing the accumulated scientific literature, a Working Group of 22 experts from 10 countries classified the consumption of red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. The group based its conclusion on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat caused 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,” the experts said.

On the other hand, processed meat was classified as “carcinogenic to humans”, based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.

The consumption of meat varies greatly between countries, with from a few percent up to 100% of people eating red meat, depending on the country, and somewhat lower proportions eating processed meat.

The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

“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,” said 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.”

The IARC Working Group considered more than 800 studies that investigated associations of more than a dozen types of cancer with the consumption of red meat or processed meat in many countries and populations with diverse diets. The most influential evidence came from large prospective cohort studies conducted over the past 20 years.

”These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat,” said 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.”

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