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Processed meat is carcinogenic, and probably red meat as well: WHO

WHO cancer experts say eating processed meat can cause bowel cancer, and that red meat is a probable cause of the disease. The meat industry is unlikely to welcome the findings.

Processed meat, such as ham and sausages, was classified along with tobacco, asbestos and diesel fumes as "group 1" substances for which there is "sufficient evidence" of cancer risks, according to the review by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued on Monday.

"For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal (bowel) cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed," said Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs Programme, in a statement.

The IARC, which is part of the UN's World Health Organization, classified red meat, which includes beef, lamb and pork, as a "probable carcinogen," placing it in the group 2A list that also includes the common weedkiller glyphosate. The classification means that there is "limited evidence" of red meat causing cancer.

The agency said it had mainly found links between meat-eating and bowel cancer, but had also noted connections with cancer of the pancreas and prostate.

The findings support "recommendations to limit intake of meat," the IARC said.

Its review, which was issued at the same time as a report in the scientific journal The Lancet Oncology, covered more than 800 studies focusing on the link between meat intake and cancer.

Meat industry worried

Preview reports on the agency's findings already drew criticism from the meat industry, particularly in the United States.

"If this is actually IARC's decision it simply cannot be applied to people's health because it considers just one piece of the health puzzle: theoretical hazards," said Barry Carpenter, who is president of the North American Meat Institute, on Friday.

Ian Johnson of Britain's Institute of Food Research said that, while there was a statistical association between eating processed meat and bowel cancer, the effect was relatively small and the mechanism was poorly defined.

The IARC has long recommended avoiding processed meat and limiting red meat intake.

Total worldwide meat consumption, including poultry, which is not classed as red meat, reached 310 million tons in 2013 - an increase of more than a quarter on 2003, according to data from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.

tj/kms (Reuters, AFP)

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