How the Meat Industry Reacted to the New Cancer Warnings

What was the meat industry’s response to leading cancer charities’ recommendation to stop eating processed meat, like bacon, ham, hot dogs, sausage, and lunch meat? As I discuss in my video Meat Industry Reaction to New Cancer Guidelines, the industry acknowledges that the most recent international cancer prevention guidelines now urge people to avoid processed meat.

“It is evident that…such a statement represents ‘a clear and present danger’ for the meat industry,” reads one response in the journal Meat Science. However, processed meat, it continues, is “a social necessity.” (How could anyone live without bologna?) The challenge for the meat industry, the response outlines, is to find a way to maintain the consumption of these convenience products while somehow not damaging public health.

We’re still not sure what in processed meat is so carcinogenic, but the most probable educated guess for explaining the damaging effect of processed meats involves heme iron, along with nitrosamine and free radical formation, ultimately resulting in carcinogenic DNA damage. To reduce the nitrosamines, they could remove the nitrites, something the industry has been considering for decades because of the long-known toxic effects they cause. The industry adds them to keep the meat pink. There are, evidently, other coloring additives available. Nevertheless, it’s going to be hard to get industry to change “in view of the positive effects” of these substances as preservatives and in achieving a “desirable flavour and red colour developing ingredients.” No one wants green eggs and ham.

It’s like salt reduction in meat products. The meat industry would like to reduce it, but “[o]ne of the biggest barriers to salt replacement is cost as salt is one of the cheapest food ingredients available.” A number of taste enhancers can be injected into the meat to help compensate for the salt reduction, but some leave a bitter after-taste. To address that, industry can also inject a patented bitter-blocking chemical that can prevent taste nerve stimulation at the same time. This “bitter blocker is only the first of what will become a stream of products that are produced due to the convergence of food technology and biotechnology.”

The meat industry could always try adding non-meat materials to the meat, such as fiber or resistant starch from beans that have protective effects against cancer. After all, in the United States, dietary fiber is under-consumed by most adults, “indicating that fiber fortification in meat products could have health benefits.” But, of course, the meat industry’s own products are one of the reasons the American diet is so deficient in fiber in the first place.

The industry is all in favor of reformulating their products to cause less cancer, but “[o]bviously any optimization has to achieve a healthier product without affecting quality, particularly hedonic aspects.”

“It is important to realise that nutritional and technological quality [in the meat industry] are inversely correlated. Currently, improvement in one will lead to deterioration of the other.” Indeed, the meat industry knows that consumption of lard is not the best thing in the world—what with heart disease being our number-one killer—but those downsides “are in sharp contrast to their technological qualities that make them indispensable in the manufacture of meat products.” Otherwise, you just don’t get the same “lard consistency.” The pig’s fat doesn’t get hard enough, and, as a result, “a fatty smear upon cutting or slicing can be observed on the cutting surface of the knife.” Less heart disease versus absence of that fatty smear? I suppose you have to weigh the pros and cons…

According to the World Health Organization’s IARC, processed meat is now a Group 1 carcinogen—the highest designation. How is it that schools still feed it to our children?

How Much Cancer Does Lunch Meat Cause? Watch the video to find out.

For more on carcinogens, cancer, and meat, see:

Some of the meat industry’s finagling reminds me of tobacco industry tactics. See, for example, Big Food Using the Tobacco Industry Playbook and The Healthy Food Movement: Strength in Unity. You can also check out American Medical Association Complicity with Big Tobacco.

Skeptical about the danger of excessive sodium intake? Check out The Evidence That Salt Raises Blood Pressure. If you’re still not convinced, see Sprinkling Doubt: Taking Sodium Skeptics with a Pinch of Salt and Sodium Skeptics Try to Shake Up the Salt Debate. Why do the meat industries add salt when millions of lives are at stake? Find out in Big Salt: Getting to the Meat of the Matter.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Meat Industry Response to Meat Being Labeled Carcinogenic

The most extensive report on diet and cancer in history is constantly being updated with all the new research. As I discuss in my video The Palatability of Cancer Prevention, in its update on colorectal cancer a few years ago, various meats were implicated, including processed meat as “a convincing cause of colorectal cancer,” which is its highest level of evidence that “effectively means ‘beyond reasonable doubt.’” More recently, processed meat was confirmed as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization. The main message was that “the best prevention of colorectal cancer is the combination of higher physical activity with a fibre-rich and meat products poor diet.” A decrease by half a turkey sandwich’s worth of meat might lower the total number of colorectal cancer cases by approximately 20 percent. There are several implications of this cancer guideline update, but a paper in the industry publication Meat Science decided “to focus on the consumer side of the story, since every consumer is a patient and vice-versa at some point in the future.” But chronic disease need not be invariably a consequence of aging.

“Although the epidemiological evidence for the relationship between colorectal cancer risk (at least!) and processed meats intake cannot be denied,” the Meat Science authors suggest further research. For example, compare the risk of consuming meat to other risky practices—alcohol, lack of physical activity, obesity, and smoking. Compared to lung cancer and smoking, maybe meat won’t look so bad!

Consumers, however, probably won’t even hear about the cancer prevention guidelines. “Consumers today are overloaded with information….It is thus probable that the dissemination of the [World Cancer Research Fund’s] update on colorectal cancer drowns in this information cloud.” And, even if consumers do see it, the meat industry doesn’t think they’ll much care.

For many consumers in the Western world, “the role of healthfulness, although important, is not close to taste satisfaction in shaping their final choice of meat and meat products…It is hence questionable that slightly revised recommendations based on the carcinogenic effects of meat consumption will yield substantial changes in consumer behavior.”

Doctors and nutrition professionals feed into this patronizing attitude that people don’t care enough about their health to change. A classic paper from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a leading journal, scoffed at the idea that people would ever switch to a “prudent diet,” reducing their intakes of animal protein and fat no matter how much cancer was prevented. “The chances of reducing consumptions of fat, protein foods, or indeed of any food to a significant extent to avoid colon cancer are virtually nil.” Consider heart disease. We know we can prevent and treat heart disease with the same kind of diet, but the public won’t do it. “[T]he diet,” they said, “would lose too much of its palatability.”

“The great palatability of ham,” in other words, “largely outweighs other considerations…[although] health and wellbeing are increasingly important factors in consumer decisions.” A 1998 Meat Science article feared that “[u]nless meat eating becomes compatible…with eating that is healthy, wholesome, and safe, it will be consigned to a minor role in the diet in developed countries during the next decade.” That prediction didn’t quite pan out. Looking at a graph of total meat consumption per person over the last 30 years or so, intake rises and rises. In 1998, when that Meat Science article worrying about the next decade of meat consumption was published, we see intake rise even further. It does then seem to kind of flatten out before it starts falling off a cliff. Indeed, meat consumption dipped down about 10 percent  but has surged back up. Still, millions of Americans are cutting down on meat.

So don’t tell me people aren’t willing to change their diets. Nevertheless, we continue to get diluted guidelines and dietary recommendations, because authorities are asking themselves, “What dietary changes could become acceptable?” rather than just telling us what the best available science says and letting us make up our own minds about the cancer risk as we feed ourselves and our families.

How Much Cancer Does Lunch Meat Cause? Good question—watch the video!

Can simply cutting down on meat consumption extend our lifespan? Find out in Do Flexitarians Live Longer?. For my overview on cancer prevention, check out How Not to Die from Cancer.

I think the role of health authorities is to share with patients the pros and cons of all the options and let the patients, their families, and their doctors decide together what’s right for them. I’ve produced a number of videos on this issue, including:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

How Bad is Bacon?

How many years of life are lost to potentially preventable cancers? Every year, more than five million expected years of life are lost to lung cancer, breast cancer, and colorectal cancer alone; “[t]herefore, identifying and improving strategies for prevention of cancer remains a priority…” This is especially important since “not more than 2% of all human cancer is attributable to purely genetic or congenital factors.” The rest involve external factors such as our diet, as I discuss in my video How Much Cancer Does Lunch Meat Cause?.

The most comprehensive summary of evidence on diet and cancer ever compiled recommends we should eat mostly foods of plant origin to help prevent cancer. This means centering one’s diet on plant foods—not just whole grains and beans every day, but every meal.

When it comes to foods that may increase cancer risk, the summary was similarly bold. Unlike many other dietary guidelines that wimp out and just advise people to “moderate” their intake of bad foods (like eat less candy), the cancer guidelines don’t mince words when it came to the worst of the worst. For example, don’t just minimize soda intake; avoid it. Don’t just cut back on bacon, ham, hot dogs, sausage, and lunch meats; avoid processed meats because “data do not show any level of intake that can confidently be shown not to be associated with risk.”

Processed meat cannot only be thought of as a “powerful multi-organ carcinogen,” but it may increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Red meat is bad, but processed meat is worse, and that includes white meat like chicken and turkey slices. So, with more heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, it’s no surprise “[p]rocessed meat consumption [has been] associated with increased risk of death.”

The second-largest prospective study ever done on diet and cancer involved more than 400,000 people in Europe. Researchers calculated that by reducing processed meat consumption to less than about a quarter of a hot dog per day, more than 3 percent of all deaths would be prevented.

The largest study, with 600,000 people, was the AARP study done in the United States. Researchers found the preventable fraction of deaths to be much higher than 3 percent, suggesting, for example, that 20 percent of heart disease deaths among women could be averted if the highest consumers cut down to less than approximately a half strip of bacon a day.

More information on processed meat can be found in videos such as:

But cancer risk has been associated with unprocessed meat as well through a variety of potential mechanisms:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: