By the time you read this editorial, I expect beef will have been dealt another low blow by people who abuse science and their positions of power to push their personal agendas.
I refer to a possible decision by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that red meat is a cancer risk. IARC calls itself the “specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization,” and it carries some influence with U.S. and international health agencies.
Early warnings suggest there may be serious biases among the scientists on this panel as there have been in many previous rulings about red meat as a possible cause of cancer.
This follows a similar event in 2007 when the World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRF) claimed that its own meta-analysis showed eating red meat puts you at risk for colorectal cancer. That study was shown to be flawed by an extensive meta-analysis done by Exponent Inc., an engineering and scientific consulting firm with offices in 20 U.S. cities.
The lead scientist on the study was Dominik Alexander, now the principal epidemiologist with EpidStat Institute in Evergreen, Colo. EpidStat is a firm specializing in human health science.
The forewarning about the possible IARC ruling was given to a group of agricultural journalists in late September by Alexander and by Shalene McNeill, nutritional research director for the Beef Checkoff. They explained, despite the flimsy evidence and the refutation of data in the 2007 WCRF report, the IARC group intends to examine red meat and perhaps list it as a cancer risk.
The term “red meat” appears never to have been well-defined by the scientists who publish data claiming it may cause cancer, but we all know the term is well-defined to the public: It means “beef” to them and the marketing data shows that to be true.
Alexander said, to his knowledge, no other food has ever been linked to cancer or named a carcinogen. That could mean a dubious infamy for beef and will likely create another blow to the market position of beef products.
I think there are some important lessons here. One is that the scientific process can always be subverted by personal prejudice, pride and/or money. It’s hard to tell which of that triad of biases is at work here, but it’s not the scientific process.
I think the second lesson is that science can be twisted to a means anywhere, including inside agriculture. Science is an important process and not one to be cast aside, but such subversion tells us to learn as much as we can about it so we will not be fooled.
To that end, I’ll share just a few of the things epidemiologist Alexander explained to journalists last month in Denver.
He said epidemiology is the “core” science of human health, but many factors must be considered in epidemiological studies, essentially because there are so many variables. Perhaps this is a good topic I may dig into in future editions of Drovers CattleNetwork.
One of the things most looked at is called “relative risk.” If I understand Alexander correctly, this rating results only from the most extensive epidemiological studies. When the relative risk goes above the ranking of 1.0, then it suggests an association, such as between eating “red meat” and getting colorectal cancer, or between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer. However, he said, “Just because we observed an association doesn’t mean it’s causation.”
In fact, the amount of relativity of that risk is actually contained in the relative risk ranking itself. Although the 2007 WCRF study was flawed, it said red meat and colorectal cancer have a relative risk of 1.1. For comparison, the relative risk between cigarette smoking and lung cancer is on the order of 10.0 to 20.0, depending on age and years of smoking, among other things. The relative risk from being obese and the relationship to Type 2 diabetes is over 8.0.
In addition, the development of cancer usually takes 20 to 40 years from the time it is instigated in body tissues. This means that current eating behaviors almost certainly have no bearing on cancer rates in a 10-year study, or a five-year study. And who can really remember what he or she ate last Sunday, let alone 30 years ago.
There’s a lot more detracting evidence than I can cover here, but I want to reiterate that this incident attacking the safety of an important and probably very safe food should teach us a broader lesson. The next time we hear about some scientific “proof,” a term that never applies to the scientific process, we’re probably being sold a bill of goods. Be suspicious.