Red meat is “probably” carcinogenic, with associations also with pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer, a World Health Organisation report said.
The classification given to processed meat – “carcinogenic to humans” – is the same as is given to alcohol, asbestos, arsenic and cigarettes.
Meat is classed as processed when it has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation. Examples include frankfurter sausages, ham, sausages, corned beef, canned meat and meat-based sauces.
The 22 experts, convened by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, classified the consumption of red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and “strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect”.
One possible reason is that the compound that gives red meat its colour, haem, may damage the lining of the bowel.
Dr Kurt Straif, head of the IARC’s monographs programme, said: “For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed.”
Ilkley butcher David Lishman, the national vice-chairman of the Q Guild of Butchers, said: “These scare stories are very detrimental to farmers who are having a tough time, as well as the whole meat trade.”
Robert Smith, managing director at Wetherby-based catering butchers Sykes House Farm, said: “In the EU and UK we have stringent guidelines to adhere to on the use of sulphites (preservatives) – we are miles ahead of the rest of the world. It’s all about having a healthy and balanced diet. We need red meat for iron, zinc and various vitamins.”
Mike Ward, secretary of The Confederation of Yorkshire Butchers’ Councils, added: “If you have a balanced diet you have nothing to fear.” Professor Tim Key, a Cancer Research UK epidemiologist, said: “This decision doesn’t mean you need to stop eating any red and processed meat. But if you eat lots of it you may want to think about cutting down.”
Professor Robert Pickard, from the Meat Advisory Panel, which is funded by British meat producers, said: “Red and processed meat do not give you cancer and the IARC report is not saying that eating processed meat is as harmful as smoking.”