The United Nations public health arm, the World Health Organisation, is reportedly planning to declare next Monday that the consumption of processed meats cause cancer in humans. Fresh red meat is also due to join the ‘encyclopaedia of carcinogens’ and is likely to be ranked as only slightly less dangerous than the preserved products.
Less than a month ago we saw the Obama Administration buckle under pressure again from meat-loving Republicans and intensive industry lobbying and what quickly disappeared, to the dismay of the planet, was the 8th edition of the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for American’s containing recommendations for a more environmentally sustainable diet—where people were to be told to eat less animal meat.
Now, processed meats like bacon, sausages, pastrami, salami, and hot dogs will be put into the same category as cigarettes, alcohol and asbestos, and rightly so. The World Cancer Research Fund states that they have “strong evidence that processed meats are a cause of bowel cancer. When meat is preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by the addition of preservatives, cancer-causing substances (carcinogens) can be formed. These substances can damage cells in the body, leading to the development of cancer.”
But it’s not only processed meat that is cancer causing. Last year scientists at the PNAS identified a sugar—called Neu5Gc—which is naturally produced in the bodies of most mammals, but is not produced by humans because of a mutation that occurred after our last common ancestor with great apes. What this means is that when humans eat red animal meat—which contains the Neu5Gc sugar—the human body triggers an immune response to the foreign sugar, producing antibodies, which spark inflammation and then leads to the progression of cancer.
Established in 1948, the constitution of the WHO had been signed by 61 countries and has a leading role in the eradication of smallpox and is responsible for monitoring of disease outbreaks, accessing the performance of health systems around the globe. It makes all the sense in the world that they stand up and recognise the scientific investigations and studies which link animal meat to cancer in humans.
The classifications, by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, follows a meeting of scientists from ten nations who reviewed all available evidence and come amid mounting concern that meat fuels the disease which claims more than 150,000 lives a year in the UK alone.
As they were with the potential for sustainable diet recommendations in the USDA’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines revision, farmers and the meat industry have expressed their concern about the impact on sales and profits if the WHO lists processed meat causing cancer and fresh meat as a carcinogen. With such a clear concern for their profits over public health, we can only hope that more people realise the true intentions of the spineless USDA—to protect its industry and continue to provide guidelines around how to develop disease and destroy our planet and biodiversity.
Plant-based diets are, however, known to protect against obesity and type 2 diabetes, reduce inflammation, and are a useful strategy for cancer prevention. Those on a plant-based diet, such as vegans, also seem to live longer.