The World Health Organization (WHO) classified processed meat among substances considered carcinogenic while red meat was classified as probably carcinogenic. At this point it is uncertain as to what sort of demand impact the release of this report will have on red meat consumption.
There have been other reports in the past that have sought to link meat consumption and cancer but the impact on demand appeared to be relatively transitory. However, we live in a very different media landscape than even a few years ago. The consumption effects will depend largely on how the nuanced message of this report will be packaged and delivered.
“This meat causes cancer” is one of the headlines, showing a picture of sausages and bacon. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) report however says that each 50 gram portion (1.8 oz) consumed daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. The average consumer does not have an actuarial background or an inclination to model risk behaviors. However, they do have an abundance of common sense, especially when it comes to consumption of foods that are deeply rooted in tradition, across cultures, and have been shown to provide sustenance over the millennia.
One of the more interesting facts in reviewing the story is red meat is the 939th agent found by the IARC to increase the risk of cancer. Examining the inter-relationship among all these agents (which include air, work environments, etc) and understanding the true level of risk from each one is outside the scope of the work of IARC. Other agents will most surely be added to the list in the coming years as the committee continues to catalogue all and everything that could be bad for us.
In the meantime, the world population has gone from around 3.2 billion in the early 1960s to around 7.5 billion today and will likely be at 9 billion in another 25 years. The global life expectancy has gone from around 55 years in the early 1960s to well over 70 years today. Some of that improvement is certainly due to modern medicine and reductions in child mortality. It is also due to the fact that as incomes have risen across all regions of the world, it has led to better nutrition, including higher consumption of meat protein. And this is one thing that reports such as the one above do not really tell the consumer.
While eating a portion of processed meat every day could increase the risk (which may be quite low to begin with) by 18%, how does that risk change if people stop eating meat and instead seek to find nourishment from less nutritional foods? Consumers well remember all the fuss about cholesterol and fat and heart disease. This led to a dramatic change in food consumption as manufacturers tripped over each other to replace fat with sugar. Today the consumer is more obese and new science tells us that risks from fatty foods may not be as dire.
Meat consumption has been increasing, in tandem with global incomes and wellbeing. In the developing world, rising incomes have allowed consumers to substitute meat for lower quality protein, a trend that will likely continue as developing countries close the income gap. WHO reminds us of the 939 risks out there. Fair enough. But the ride is too short and precious to hide in a bunker, breathing filtrated hair and eating celery sticks (Source: CME Group).