5 Things to Know About the WHO’s Statement on Red Meat and Cancer

Yesterday’s announcement created widespread confusion for carnivores

Bacon Cheeseburger
Rupp Tina/the food passionates/Corbis

It was the statement heard ‘round the world—people paused mid-bite, holding up that bacon cheeseburger in disbelief, as the World Health Organization announced yesterday that it would classify both processed and red meat as carcinogens. Here are five things to know about the announcement:

The Term “Carcinogens” Can Be Misleading

That’s because all WHO findings fall into a category system that can be pretty confusing. WHO’s classifications “are based on strength of evidence not degree of risk,” Ed Yong writes for The Atlantic. That means that things like processed meat that fall into Group 1 (established carcinogens) are similar not because of how risky they are, but because of the strength of evidence that they cause cancer. Hence, plutonium and processed meat fall into the same category—though plutonium is much more likely to give you cancer. The categories get even more confusing as you head into groups 2A and 2B, writes Yong. Given the criteria used by the WHO, it's silly to compare eating meat with something as carcinogenic as smoking or handling radioactive materials, so proceed with caution.

The Classification Doesn’t Include All Meat

The WHO uses forceful language throughout its announcement, so it’s easy to miss the fact that its classifications only extend to processed and red meats. In the announcement, the WHO defines red meat as “all types of mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat," and processed meat as meat that “has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.” Meats like fish and chicken were not evaluated by the WHO.

Experts Aren’t Suggesting That People Abandon Meat

Meat lovers may not have to abandon their favorite products entirely to avoid cancer. "Experts not involved in the report said that the findings should give people more reason to 'moderate' their intake of processed meat. But they cautioned that any increased risk of cancer was relatively small," Anahad O'Connor writes for The New York Times.

The Report Doesn’t Contain Guidelines On How to Cook or Consume Meat

Despite linking processed and red meat with colorectal cancer, the WHO doesn’t give guidelines on how to eat or prepare meat. In an information sheet about the report, the organization notes that the risk of cancer increases with the amount consumed, but gives no other practical recommendations.

The Report Could Influence Guidelines About Meat Consumption

Though the WHO itself doesn’t make policy recommendations in its report, a spokesperson from the body responsible for updating the USDA’s dietary guidelines told The Washington Post’s Peter Whoriskey that the guidelines have not yet been reviewed for possible incorporation into nutrition recommendations for Americans. But O’Connor notes for The Times that it could influence recommendations about meat consumption around the world.

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