It was only last October that the World Health Organization (WHO) announced, based on a report from the International Agency of Cancer Research (IACR), that processed meats and red meats were carcinogenic.
The WHO, however, did not attempt to establish the degree of risk to the public or the actual nature of the risk. While they did assign an IACR Group 1 classification to processed meats and an IACR Group 2A classification to red meats, it is important to remember that a “group” simply refers to the weight of evidence available to support the carcinogenic designation; not to the actual level of risk involved.
It is not clear, therefore, if or to what degree the risks involved can be mitigated (for example, if they can be lessened by avoiding high temperature cooking or by avoiding certain methods of preservation). As a result, and as expected, sales of processed and red meats declined immediately following the announcement. What is perhaps surprising is that within just a few weeks, sales of such meats began to return to normal, as reported in a March 2016 Global News broadcast. The reasons for such a rebound may vary – perhaps people have short term memories, perhaps they began to doubt the WHO’s findings, perhaps they decided that the health benefits of such meats to outweigh the risks, or perhaps they find such meats too delicious to give up.
Of course, the potential risks should not be so readily dismissed. Estimates of cancer deaths, based on independent research conducted by the Global Burden of Disease Project, due to diets high in processed meats are about 34,000 worldwide per year, while those attributed to diets high in red meat are estimated at 50,000 per year. On the other hand, putting this into perspective, the number of deaths worldwide per year due to ingesting contaminated foods is about 420000, with 40% of those being children under the age of 5, and an additional 500 million+ individuals falling ill each year (according to the WHO’s own statistics).
While in the case of meats it is still unclear how to mitigate the overall risks, in the case of food contamination we do know how risks can be reduced and avoided. This involves observing simple food safety practices throughout the supply chain, from the sourcing of raw materials to the dinner table. For consumers at home, this means proper handling, refrigeration, and cooking of foods. For industry, this means implementing HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) and adopting effective food safety programs.
Were producers, suppliers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers to take food safety more seriously and adopt simple but effective measures towards preventing contamination and adulteration, the global food supply would be far safer than were the WHO to declare an outright global ban of red meats.
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