Routine consumption of processed meats, such as cold-cuts, hot dogs and bacon, has long been linked to certain malignancies but the World Health Organization further indicted the food products Monday and implicated a wide roster of red meats as conspirators in the development of cancer.
The report from the WHO's International Agency on Cancer reads like a cautionary tale. The panel of nearly two dozen experts from 10 countries, specializing in public health, oncology and other medical disciplines, placed processed meats in its Group 1 category, meaning substantial evidence suggests they can be carcinogenic. Panelists said chances of developing colorectal cancer are enhanced when the products are regularly consumed. Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed form of cancer in the United States.
In the past, WHO panelists listed tobacco use and asbestos exposure in Group 1, but panelists Monday emphasized that processed meats do not carry the same level of risk as smoking and contact with asbestos.
Red meat, such as beef, pork and lamb were listed in Group 2A, meaning they are likely carcinogenic but scientific evidence is not yet strong enough to further indict these foods. The power of existing data, they said, is still strong enough to suggest these products may play a role in colorectal, prostate and pancreatic cancers.
Some experts said it's important to approach the new data with logic, not fear.
"Meats do and always have had a role in a healthy diet," said Nancy Copperman, a nutritionist and assistant vice president for public health with the North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck. "But I don't think we need to have our diets revolve around red meat."
She said parents should become more creative about school lunches and eliminate bologna, salami and other deli meats from children's sandwiches. She supports the Meatless Monday campaign, launched in 2003 by the nonprofit Monday Campaigns. The goal is to reduce meat consumption nationwide.
The North American Meat Institute, an industry trade organization, labeled the panel's conclusions alarmist.
"Many of the panelists were aiming for a specific result despite old, weak, inconsistent, self-reported intake data," said Betsy Booren, the institute's vice president of scientific affairs. "They tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome."
WHO panelists, meanwhile, drew their conclusions after reviewing more than 800 studies. The research is known as a meta-analysis, meaning they reanalyzed existing data to develop new hypotheses. As such, their results correlate with a higher cancer risk but aren't to be construed as a cancer cause.
Panelists concluded that if further research confirms their findings, the cancer risk could increase by as much as 17 percent for every 100 grams of red meat consumed daily.
"I am not surprised by the WHO's findings because I have been voicing my concerns for years about processed meats," said Dr. Jules Garbus, co-chief of colon and rectal surgery at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola.
"Colorectal cancer is a complex multi-factorial disease. . . . But we do realize the health benefits of having a well-balanced diet," added Garbus.
Susan Gapstur, vice president of epidemiology for the American Cancer Society, noted that the WHO research drives home facts the cancer society has emphasized for years.
"Classifying processed meat as carcinogenic and red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans is not unexpected," Gapstur said.