What’s cooking? Meat industry seeks to prove red meat doesn’t cause cancer
2015 IARC Advisory Group
Frederick A. Beland
Division of Biochemical Toxicology
National Center for Toxicological Research
Hermann M. Bolt
Leibniz Research Centre for Working
Environment and Human Factors
Technical University of Dortmund
John R. Bucher
National Institute of Environmental Health
Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS)
National Center for Environmental
(unable to attend)
National Cancer Center of China
Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences
Department of Environmental Science
University of North Carolina
Prakash C. Gupta
Healis Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health
Great Eastern Chambers
Biological Mechanisms and Prevention
of Work-Related Diseases
Health and Work Ability
Finnish Institute of Occupational Health
Robert J. Kavlock
National Center for Computational Toxicology
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Research Triangle Park, NC
Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL)
Municipal Institute of Medical Research
French Agency for Food, Environment and
Occupational Health Safety (ANSES)
Ruth M. Lunn
Report on Carcinogens Center
National Toxicology Program
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Research Triangle Park, NC
Dalla Lana School of Public Health
University of Toronto
Christopher J. Portier
National Center for Environmental Health and
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Luis Felipe Ribeiro Pinto
Brazilian National Cancer Institute (INCA)
Rio de Janeiro
Norwegian Scientific Committee for
Spaghetti with meatballs, sloppy joes, ribeye steak, beef stew, hot dogs, fast food burgers; should those foods be grouped with asbestos, formaldehyde, hepatitis B and C, and other substances and diseases known to cause cancer?
That’s the question the World Health Organization is asking.
So, is taking a bite of your favorite steak off the grill akin to lighting up a cigarette?
The WHO’s cancer research arm announced last spring that they will be looking into the possibility that red meat and processed meats are carcinogenic agents.
“I’m deadly serious,” Mark Dopp said in a Meatingplace story. The senior vice president of regulatory affairs and general counsel for the North American Meat Institute, told a group of processors, “A great deal of work needs to be done to fend this off.”
A total of 52 items or activities, including chlorinated drinking water, sugar-sweetened beverages, coffee, obesity, six different types of pesticides, aspartame, job stress, and red and processed meats are “agents to be evaluated with high priority,” in the next five years, according to an International Association for Research on Cancer report.
The cancer research arm of the WHO put out the internal report in April of last year following a meeting in France and had this to say on red and processed meats:
“Red and processed meats are consumed as food worldwide. Several meta-analyses have reported a small but mostly statistically significant elevated risk of colorectal cancer with the consumption of red meat or processed meat. In general, risks remain elevated in subgroup analyses by study design, sex and studies controlling for specific confounders. Some studies suggested an association between increased risk of cancers of the oesophagus, lung and pancreas with the consumption of red meat, and increased risk of cancers of the lung, stomach and prostate with the consumption of processed meat. There was also a large database evaluating cooking methods of meat and cancer risk where cooking methods may help explain the increased risk observed for consumption of red or processed meats. Cooking meat at a high temperature forms carcinogenic heterocyclic amines and PAHs. Mechanistic studies provide support for the potential carcinogenicity of meats cooked at high temperatures. Providing information on potential factors such as cooking methods that may affect cancer risk may be more useful to the public than an evaluation of only red meat or processed meats.”
The advisory group that discussed and settled on the items to research is made up of 21 people from around the world, including eight from the U.S.
Andrew L. Milkowski, a doctorate researcher with the University of Wisconsin’s animal science department, said the group is assembling a research team to look at red meat and processed meat. They put out a call for applicants earlier this winter. The opportunity closed in February but the research team members have not yet been announced.
Milkowski said that research team will accept studies and other information between now and September.
“It’s not likely that any new research will be able to be completed between now and then,” he said.
But past research can be compiled and submitted for the committee’s consideration.
The North American Meat Institute plans to do that, said Janet Riley, NAMI’s senior vice president of public affairs.
“What we can do is be sure we have the best available research and be sure they have it,” she said.
Riley said NAMI believes research shows red meat and processed meats are healthy.
“We will be providing it to them to be sure they’ve got what we believe is strong evidence for the safety and nutrition of red and processed meat,” she said.
The studies will likely not be the typical agricultural meat studies conducted in land grant university animal science laboratories but rather analyses of human health, published peer review papers and the like.
Cattle producers should “stay active, stay alert,” with their local cattle organizations, she suggested.
“This isn’t the place where a letter-writing campaign will have an impact. I think we need to watch the issues closely. At this point, it’s a high priority for all associations representing meat, not just in the U.S. but globally,” she said.
Linda Chezum, nutrition committee chairman for the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, agreed that producers should be paying close attention.
“I hope cattle producers will get busy and read about this,” she said.
The Indiana cattle producer fears “anyone with common sense will walk away shaking their head.”
Chezum said while it is not necessarily the view of her organization, she personally worries that the research is being promoted by the “anti red meat” animal rights agenda. An attorney and a professor at Purdue University who teaches a class on animal ownership law, she is familiar with the issue.
Riley said it is possible the committee would find just red meat or just processed meat as a carcinogen, and not the other. Either item could land on any of the five groups the organization uses to classify different kinds of carcinogens.
“Our hope is that if the full body of science is examined that neither will be listed because we don’t think it’s warranted. But it’s hard to predict the future,” Riley said.
Lumping red meat and processed meats together isn’t necessarily logical, Chezum said, since processed meats are often made of poultry or even fish products.
Thirty billion dollars per year are spent by the U.S. government’s 28 institutes for health research focused on aging, cancer, genetics, etc., Chezum said.
“The tip of the emerging research is understanding the genetic basis for cancers,” she said.
Those with similar genetic makeup generally share common cultural traditions – and the same dinner meal – she pointed out, so determining whether cancer was caused by a food item, an environmental issue or genetics can be tough.
Studying one food item individually is difficult, Chezum pointed out.
“I’m not sure how they screen out the effects of other foods,” she said.
In reference to the IARC’s statement that cooking methods of meat may need to be looked at, Chezum expressed concern there is not enough accurate research available.
“As you travel around the world and look at various cultures, there are so many different cooking methods. In certain parts of the world, they gather animal dung to burn and cook their food.
“They have to match the cooking of the food to the person’s genetic makeup and whatever their risk factors are,” she said.
Another point of contention regarding cooking methods is this: why single out red and processed meats?
“We like to burn our marshmallows over the campfire. Are they carcinogenic? People grill chicken and fish. I grill potatoes,” Chezum said.
Milkowski said he’s worried one or both items will be deemed cancerous.
While he trusts the committee will “do a systematic job of looking for literature relevant to the topic,” he worries about pre-conceived notions.
“If things get to the stage of a review, my feeling is that they have a bias toward listing something as a carcinogen. I don’t know what evidence they will have but given the tone of the organization and the people at IARC that administer this, that is my general feeling,” he said.
A representative from the World Health Organization could not be reached for comment. ❖
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