By now, "Meat causes cancer" is plastered across the headlines of every major and minor news outlet, not to mention blasted in world of social media.
Responses to the World Health Organization's claim range from blind acceptance to the North American Meat Institute’s response that the claim is a "dramatic and alarmist overreach" that "defies both common sense and numerous studies showing no correlation between meat and cancer and many more studies showing the many health benefits of balanced diets that include meat."
Not so surprising
"Meat has always been a fairly easy target, and this certainly isn’t the first time they’ve made such a claim," said Danette Amstein, marketing principal for Midan Marketing. "… We were anticipating the story. We were also anticipating the media would cover it with a negative, fairly inaccurate slant, which is what’s happened."
IARC isn’t the only health organization that has been after meat, particularly for its supposed carcinogenic properties. According to a statement from Susan Gapstur, MPH, PhD, vice president of epidemiology at the American Cancer Society, "In fact, classifying processed meat as carcinogenic and red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans is not unexpected. Indeed, based on earlier scientific studies, including findings from the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II, the American Cancer Society has recommended limiting consumption of red and processed meat specifically since 2002."
"That any report from any committee has chosen to isolate a single food as a cause, that’s just not realistic," said Amstein.
What meat companies can do
"The best way for meat companies to respond is by contacting their local media and telling the other side of the story, or more importantly, educating consumers with the facts about the nutrition benefits of meat as part of a healthy diet," said Chris Young, outreach specialist for the American Association of Meat Processors, in a statement on behalf of AAMP.
"It would make more sense instead of being quiet to be communicating with consumers through their social media accounts, on their websites, even in radio spots that run in the stores: 'This is what’s in the headlines. Let me explain it to you and why you don’t need to worry about it. Here’s why you should have fresh meat in your diet,'" said Amstein.
Forgetting the benefits
According to a statement from NAMI, "IARC’s panel was given the basic task of looking at hazards that meat could pose at some level, under some circumstance, but was not asked to consider any off-setting benefits, like the nutrition that meat delivers or the implications of drastically reducing or removing meat from the diet altogether."
Many in the meat industry believe that the IARC didn’t take into account the nutritional benefits of meat, such as "that fresh meat is the very best natural source of protein [and] the fact that it’s such a good source of zinc, iron, protein, B vitamins," said Amstein.
"These very important nutrients in meat far outweigh any theoretical hazard," Hormel Foods said in a statement.
Where’s the risk assessment?
"The problem is, they’re naming agents that could potentially cause cancer, but what they’re not doing is putting right beside it the level of risk," said Amstein. "So I think it’s an extremely critical point of this conversation that’s really not happening. They’re getting really nice headlines, but when you get down to the real meat and potatoes of the report, they come right out and say they are not doing a level of risk analysis. It’s an unfair assessment that leaves consumers yet more confused about what they’re hearing."
The American Cancer Society confirms this concern. "The [IARC’s lists of carcinogens] describe the level of evidence that something can cause cancer, not how likely it is that something will cause cancer in any particular person. … Carcinogens do not cause cancer at all times, under all circumstances."
"IARC’s decision simply cannot be applied to people’s health because it considers just one piece of the health puzzle: theoretical hazards," said Betsy Booren, Ph.D., NAMI’s vice president of scientific affairs, in a statement. "Risks and benefits must be considered together before telling people what to eat, drink, drive, breathe, or where to work."
"If we rely simply on IARC’s list of cancer ‘hazards’, it would be clear that just living on earth would be a cancer hazard," said Young in a statement. "Consumers should interpret this sensibly. It’s IARC’s job to find cancer hazards, however, the scientific evidence shows red and processed meat can be part of a healthy diet."
Why it may not be the meat itself
According to the National Cancer Institute’s cooked meats fact sheet, heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are mutagenic chemicals — or they alter DNA, which can increase someone’s risk for cancer — that form when muscle meat is cooked using high-temperature methods, such as pan frying or grilling directly over an open flame. However, NCI also states that these chemicals arise not just from the cooking of beef and pork, the red meats being called into question, but also fish and chicken.
"To me, I feel this is somewhat of a non-issue for the livestock suppliers themselves, considering the higher incidence of cancer is more directly correlated with the chemicals associated with processing the meat rather than the meat itself," Angie Setzer, vice president of Grain for Citizens, told Benzinga.
This is good news for companies that have found ways to produce processed meats without using these types of chemicals. Hormel acquired Applegate Farms earlier this year, whose products are natural, organic, and minimally processed, which is appealing to many health-conscious consumers.
"Those companies are a step ahead of their competition and have been prepared for something like this to come down the pipe," Setzer told Benzinga.
Where plant-based foods come in
In the meat industry’s wake, meat alternatives, namely plant-based meat substitutes, could be impacted by the IARC’s statements. IARC’s claim about processed and red meats "further validates what proponents of plant-based lifestyles have advocated for years: Eat more plants," said Sadrah Schadel, co-owner of plant-based meat alternatives company No Evil Foods.
Food alternatives have rattled other industries as well, such as dairy alternatives like almond and soy milks. Consumers continue to look for foods and beverages they deem to be healthier or in line with their dietary preferences, such as veganism, so industries like plant-based meats, proteins, and other products have increased in popularity.
But at the same time, it could be difficult for some people to fully give up on meat.
"People have a deep connection to the foods they grew up with and for the majority of Americans, that was a diet heavily based on animal proteins," said Schadel. "If we, and plant-based companies like us, can satisfy that deeply ingrained connection to animal protein and find ways to appeal to meat-eaters who are cutting back with plant-based proteins that are as flavorful [and] texturally satisfying, then we can all help move the future of meat forward."