The IARC committed an amazing rush to judgment not seen since the 2008 tomato crop was condemned by the CDC as the source of a salmonella outbreak before the all the facts were in. The real culprit was found to be imported jalapeno peppers.
This time, an over-anxious IARC labeled meat as a carcinogen, right along with tasty stuff like ham and bacon, which they placed in the supermarket coffin case right next to a pack of cigarettes. God only knows what a pack of Slim Jims might do to you.
The reaction amongst the spinners of the world was swift. Hate meat and fear the imagined evils of CAFOs? Those folks were gleefully machine gunning press releases describing the IARC paper as positive proof that an ounce of corned beef was nearly as lethal as an ounce of plutonium, an element in the same class now occupied by meat.
Love meat? Groups like the NCBA and NAMI were choking on their dinner filets. Incredulous press releases pointing out the insanity perpetrated by IARC almost kept up with the nonsense spewed forth by Citizens for the Nannification of Food.
Of course, the CNFs of the world mentioned that any communiques coming out of Denver or Washington were tainted by association. Meat guys would always rally to defend their turf as anti-meat guys can always be counted on to do the same.
IARC only condemned red meat so poultry should have gotten a big boost. Or not. The fervent believers of the anti-meat crowd were quick to deny the logical choice of choosing a chicken as an alternative to a t-bone. Quartz, an online magazine, published this chicken-footed slap to the rest of the American dinner plate: "With last week’s news that eating red and processed meats increase cancer risks, chicken is likely to find more fans than ever. But anyone reaching for a package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts at the supermarket as a guilt-free alternative to burgers might want to rethink that decision."
They were not claiming a Chic-fil-A sandwich could kill you sometime in the far distant future. The problem they had was "The farmers raising the chickens get paid through a zero-sum tournament system where a quarter of farms actually lose money on their flocks. Industrial chicken farming is also a major pollutant to soil, air and water."
So, to achieve dietary correctness, we should be condemned to a life time of raw, all-natural, GMO- and gluten-free veggies and cream of tofu soup made with almond milk?
After the first few days of hyperventilated, frightening cancer scare headlines and wild-eyed accusations, saner heads finally prevailed. Publications that did not have a vested interest started to look a little deeper at what IARC had done and asked that the express train to the Vegan village be stopped at the next crossing.
The World Health Organization (WHO), the alarmed parents of IARC, aware of the crisis in cofidence created by comparing meat with tobacco and nuclear waste, did some back-tracking the day after the filet hit the fan. WHO issued a clarification, saying "IARC’s review confirms the recommendation in WHO’s 2002 Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases report, which advised people to moderate consumption of preserved meat to reduce the risk of cancer. The latest IARC review does not ask people to "stop eating processed meats but indicates that reducing consumption of these products can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer."
The real problem, they said, was a 5% risk in getting certain types of cancer during your lifetime became a 6% risk if you were a heavy consumer of processed meats. Exposure to tobacco smoke or plutonium, two well-know carcinogens in the same grotesquely overly broad category, offer significantly higher risk.
Days after a careful reading of the report and the WHOvian clarification, though, headlines were still frantically exclaiming that a hot dog and a burger were on a health hazard par with a pack of unfiltered Camels. The damage done cannot be undone by the facts. Years from now vegans and lazy editorialists will still cite the erroneous news headlines published during the first day of the IARC report and a substantial number of people who can only be labeled as the gullible few will still believe.
In what could lead to a large scale revision of the IARC paper, WHO also said they have "a standing group of experts who regularly evaluate the links between diet and disease. Early next year they will meet to begin looking at the public health implications of the latest science and the place of processed meat and red meat within the context of an overall healthy diet."
Got that? They are going to take a second look at the data, hopefully driven by the lack of consensus among the IARC scientists who reviewed some often conflicting data and decided to 'hang the bastard' anyway when the monkey trial should have ended in a hung jury at worst. Maybe they will revise the way they report potential carcinogens so that more people, including those charged with writing sensationalistic headlines, will understand the real risk.
Let's check in with electronic and print resources, and listen to what some important people said.
Skin-in-the-game Gene Hall, Texas Agriculture Talks, gasping for air after he saw the absurdity of the IARC carcinogenic classifications: "In that Group 1 category, you have, among other things, cigarettes, asbestos, a host of very powerful chemicals and salami, bacon and cocktail weenies. It’s okay, you can say it. This is absurd. Processed meats are on the list because if you eat that every single day, cancer experts say you can increase your cancer risk by 1 percent. That’s not exactly like plutonium, is it?
In Group 2A, we find red meat. Steaks of both grass-fed and grain-fed sources, pork chops, lamb and so on. Know what else is in Group 2A? Glyphosate. This is a weed killer commonly known as Roundup. You can buy all you want at Walmart. It’s almost universally accepted in the scientific community as safe. IARC alone has it classified as “probably” causing cancer. So here we have a weed killer hanging out in the same category as prime rib. Again, folks, this is absurd. It also begins to smack of an anti-agriculture agenda."
A calm and rational Brad Plumer reporting for Vox Science & Health: "The only thing this scale (the IARC Carcinogen Classification) tells us is how persuasive the evidence is for a causal link between each substance and (at least one type of) human cancer. It doesn't tell us anything about how large those cancer risks are, or how dangerous each substance is. It's purely a statement about the state of the science on a very, very narrow question."
The independent management of the Toronto (Canada) Globe and Mail editorialized: "Health officials, Canada’s included, have long been advising people to limit their intake of red meat and processed meats, and to focus on balanced diets that include lots of vegetables, nuts and fruits. It’s not as if we are suddenly being awoken to a latent danger. The IARC’s poorly explained decision is at best a reminder that moderation, as in all things dietary, is the best course."
Dustin Boler, assistant professor and research in meat science at the University of Illinois, took the historic view: “When we go back in history, processing meat was always about keeping it safe. Because of processing, we have a safe food supply. Processing meat is a good thing.”
From the National Provisioner: Gregory Härtl, a spokesman for WHO, told The Irish Times the original message from the report was “misinterpreted.”
“We’re not saying stop eating processed meats altogether. Do not cut out meats completely as it has nutrients,” he said. “But we do not want to do anything to excess. Research indicates reducing your consumption of processed meats can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.”
The Provisioner added: The organization also clarified its report on social media, Tweeting: ““Meat provides a number of essential nutrients and, when consumed in moderation, has a place in a healthy diet”
Dr. Jim Marsden, blogging for Meatingplace magazine: "Unfortunately, the report and the media coverage it received smacks of a vegetarian and anti-meat agenda. There’s also the possibility of an anti-Western agenda. Which leads me to what may be the biggest question of all – Do we really need advice from the United Nations on what we should eat?"
The best social media response?
The WHO? What do Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey know about nutrition?