Farming leaders are keen for consumers and policy makers to take the World Health Organisation (WHO) report on the cancer risks of processed and red meat in context – and not to overlook the role meat plays in a healthy, mixed diet.

After reviewing scientific literature the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) yesterday released a report which classified the consumption of processed meat as “carcinogenic” and of red meat as “probably carcinogenic” to humans.

They said while the risk of developing colorectal cancer from consumption of processed meat remained small, it increased with consumption.

However, Dr Christopher Wilde, director of the IARC said that while the findings supported current public recommendations on limiting meat intake, it was important not to forget the nutritional value of red meats.

Building on the fact that the report clearly recognised and highlighted the nutritional benefits, Jim McLaren, chairman of Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), said that the wider background of the findings should also be considered.

“The IARC has looked at over 900 substances since 1971 and decided that all, apart from one, is at least capable of causing cancer in certain circumstances. These substances include such diverse products as coffee, paint, hairdressing products and talcum powder,” said Mr McLaren.

He said QMS advised consumers to eat a healthy balanced diet, in line with current government guidelines: “The government looked at the same evidence in 2010 and recommended people eat no more than 70g of red and processed meat a day and that’s exactly what the vast majority of us eat.

“IARC’s findings suggest that eating 50g of processed meat brings a small increase in risk. However, average consumption in the UK is just 17g per day – so people would have to eat three times their current level to increase their risk.

“Avoiding red meat could in fact be detrimental to health,” said McLaren, “for example, around 40 per cent of women and teenage girls have iron intakes which are too low. Red meat is a natural source of protein, iron, zinc and B vitamins and we should continue to enjoy it in the knowledge that it plays a vital role in our diets.”

He also pointed out that vegetarians were found to have the same rate of bowel cancer as meat eaters in one of the biggest studies of its kind in the UK carried out by Oxford University.

Robert Pickard, a member of the Meat Advisory Panel and a professor at Cardiff University, backed up this view: “What we do know is that avoiding red meat in the diet is not a protective strategy against cancer,” he said.

“The top priorities for cancer prevention remain smoking cessation, maintenance of normal body weight and avoidance of high alcohol intakes.”

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