The IARC's Red Meat Scare

THE IARC'S RED MEAT SCARE

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)’s main function as an arm of the World Health Organization (WHO) is to study hundreds of substances and activities to determine carcinogenic risk levels. Over four decades, 989 of these have been researched and assessed. Essentially, they want to find out what will give us cancer and what is safe for us.

Late last year, the IARC made a glaring mistake in one of its assessments. An October 2015 statement released by the organization said that after a thorough review, it determined that red meat would be classified as a carcinogen. More specifically, it claimed that the consumption of red meat was “probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect.”

This misleading statement caused a public uproar. Nationwide, people were panicking over their past consumption of red meat and if it was already causing them cancer. Understandably, they were upset that a supposedly distinguished scientific organization would jump to such a drastic conclusion.

Since that time, the WHO and IARC have backtracked on that statement, releasing more specific information about their assessment in order to amend their previous irresponsibility. The fear mongering in the media, especially from animal rights activists, would have you believe that red meat is a significant threat to your health. This could not be more off-base. A small amount of ‘limited evidence’ found by the IARC was enough to link it to colorectal cancer. It was a correlation, not a direct causation, so the statement included the words ‘probably carcinogenic’.

It doesn’t examine the strength of the carcinogen, and it doesn’t elaborate that hundreds of substances and activities have been found by the IARC to pose some level of risk. According to a Reuters investigation, of those previously mentioned 989 studies, 988 of them were found to have some risk, including such things as wood dust, pickled vegetables, and alcoholic beverages. So to release a specific statement singling out red meat for its particular risk is rather irresponsible.

Because of its work, the IARC has credibility and influence with the general public. Cancer is a serious disease that affects millions of people every year, and the smallest link to it can cause a major shift in consumer habits.

According to Bob Tarone, a statistician formerly at America’s National Cancer Institute and now Biostatistics Director at the International Epidemiology Institute, the way the IARC functions is “not good for science, it’s not good for regulatory agencies. And for people? Well, they are just being confused.”

The IARC creates confusion with its classifications by failing to properly contextualize the strength of each risk. Even the smallest risk is still a risk in its view, and that is where its public health messaging causes issues. As Richard Sullivan, a professor of cancer policy and global health at King's College London, puts it, “. . . there is a disjunction between the pure science and the policy and public health messaging. That’s where problems arise.”

Of course, the hysteria over red meat’s cancer scare is provoked by the aforementioned animal rights groups, whose agenda against all meat consumption is extremely apparent in the way they’ve touted the IARC’s findings. They can mobilize support for their cause based on this misleading statement. This helps to make their case more appealing that the vegan lifestyle is a better option for long-term health.

We know this to be false, as each year there is more and more evidence proving meat consumption’s mental, physical, and emotional health benefits. Meat has particular vitamins, minerals, and protein that cannot be effectively provided by plants or supplements.

Do you believe that meat’s positive effects far outweigh any potential risk? Let us know in the comments.

Meanwhile, you can read more about the separation of fact and fiction on red meat here. Also, check out our previous article on the health comparison between meat-based and vegan/vegetarian diets here.

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