International Association for Research on Cancer

What’s the Background?

The U.N. World Health Organization’s International Association for Research on Cancer (IARC) in the fall of 2015 issued findings on meat, classifying it as carcinogenic to humans and determining that processed meats (all processed meats, not just red processed meats) cause colorectal cancer and possibly gastric cancer, and that red meat probably causes colorectal cancer and possibly pancreatic and prostate cancer. IARC previously has classified such things as sunlight, alcoholic beverages, and being a barber as carcinogens. The IARC process sets a low threshold for determining carcinogenicity, with risk not factored into its conclusions – if an agent is determined to contribute to cancer, it is deemed carcinogenic even if carcinogenicity is only associated with high rates of exposures or, in the case of meat, consumption. IARC did indicate that it will for the first time incorporate – in a monograph to be published in 2016 – risk into its conclusions and communications. IARC highlighted the relatively low risk that consumption of processed meat plays in development of colorectal cancer and that there is a general consensus that colorectal cancers are caused by a combination of agents – multiple risk factors need to be present to get colorectal cancer, and meat by itself is not a cause.

Why Does It Matter to Our Producers?

IARC is charged with conducting and coordinating research on the causes of cancer and collecting and publishing cancer surveillance data, which often is used by public health and other government agencies to establish guidelines and regulations. (The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is using the IARC findings in petitioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture to eliminate processed meat from school lunches.) Drawing the wrong conclusions could have negative consequences for pork producers.

What is NPPC’s position?

NPPC believes the conclusions about meat and cancer from IARC were based largely on weak statistical associations from studies that were not designed to show cause and effect, making the findings dubious. (The U.N. panel subsequently issued a clarification, stating that the agency did not ask people to stop eating processed meat.) Red meat is a nutrient-dense food that plays a critical role in providing protein and other nutrients in the diet. Health professionals continue to recommend including lean meat, such as pork, in a healthy diet.

“Claims about meat and cancer from a U.N. agency were based largely on weak statistical associations from studies that were not designed to show cause and effect. Red meat is a nutrient-dense food that plays a critical role in providing protein and other nutrients in the diet.”
Dr. Dan Kovich, NPPC Deputy Director of Science & Technology