Editor's note: The following commentary was featured in the November/December 2015 issue of PORK Network.
When my kids were teenagers, if they were out with friends and for some reason I couldn’t reach them, my mind would race to the worst-case scenario. I was sure they’d had an accident or some other catastrophe had occurred. Nearly always, it was nothing other than, “I forgot to call.” Even though they’re adults now, they live 900 miles away and my mind still plays tricks on me by thinking something terrible has happened if I don’t hear from them on a semi-regular basis.
The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released a report that places processed meats (hot dogs, bacon, ham, sausage, cold cuts) in Group 1: Carcinogenic to Humans, the same category as cigarettes. Red meat (beef, pork, lamb) is assigned to Group 2A: Probably Carcinogenic to Humans.
On first glance, it’s easy to see how the public could be alarmed and jump to a worst-case scenario. To exacerbate the situation, hundreds of activist and environmental groups stand at the ready to exploit this information to their fullest advantage.
The American Institute for Cancer Research sent a news release supporting the IARC report, but unlike nearly all the other publicity that was disseminated on the report, this group at least put the information in perspective.
It’s press release stated, “Although WHO now classifies both processed meat and cigarettes in the highest category of carcinogen, these classifications reflect the strength of the evidence behind them, not the level of risk. We hope that media coverage of this new report is careful to consider the appropriate real-world context: In some studies, participants who eat diets high in processed meat experience a risk for colorectal cancer that is nearly double that of non-meat-eaters. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking cigarettes multiplies a person's risk for cancer by as much as 20 times.”
The IARC itself provided real-world context, which seemed to be lost on the major media outlets. It wrote: “In the case of red meat, the classification is based on limited evidence from epidemiological studies that shows associations between eating red meat and developing colorectal cancer...
"Limited evidence means that an association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer, but that other explanations for the observations - technically termed chance, bias or confounding - could not be ruled out.
“Real-world context” is woefully missing from the general media in this country. Rather, it seems the more sensationalist and exploitive, the more the public eats it up. It’s important for consumers to remember that not only should the results be put in context, but so should the myriad causes of cancer.
Diet is just one factor of the equation. The IACR estimates half of colorectal cancers could be prevented by eating a healthy diet, staying a healthy weight, and being active. Add the importance of getting regular check-ups and the risk is further minimized, making the furor over the IARC report inconsequential.
But, news is news, right?
Grab it and run.