Bacon-Loving Americans Shrug Off WHO's Cancer Warning

Declaring processed meats carcinogenic has had 'no discernible effect' on U.S. consumption.
(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Dec 2, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Something funny happened after the World Health Organization declared that processed meats cause cancer: Americans didn’t seem to care.

The headline-grabbing announcement from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of WHO, that such carnivorous delights as bacon, sausage, and other cured or otherwise processed meats are carcinogenic has apparently failed to dampen Americans’ appetite for the stuff.

“The impression is here in the U.S. that it’s been kind of a wash, no discernible effect on demand,” Mark Jordan, a food industry analyst at Informa Economics, told Politico. “We’ve probed a couple of our clients in the retail community, and none are really getting the impression that consumers are taking a sour posture toward these processed meats.”

That’s in marked contrast to the U.K., where The Independent reports that sales of pork and bacon products have dropped by about $4.5 million in the last two weeks—a drop experts are attributing to the IARC’s widely reported announcement.

So are the Brits overreacting, or are Americans just so busy stuffing ourselves with bacon burgers that we’re oblivious of good science?

Well, it’s probably a little bit of both.

Following the deluge of headlines linking processed meat to cancer, scientists and other experts pointed out that just because the IARC had definitively placed bacon alongside, say, cigarettes in the category of known human carcinogens didn’t mean the risk for developing cancer from eating processed meats was anywhere near the same as the risk from something like smoking. It’s not.

As Anahad O’Connor put it in The New York Times, “Smoking raises a person’s lifetime risk of developing lung cancer by a staggering 2,500 percent. Meanwhile, two daily strips of bacon, based on the associations identified by the W.H.O., would translate to about a 6 percent lifetime risk for colon cancer, up from the 5 percent risk for people who don’t enjoy bacon or other processed meats.”

So go ahead, double up on that meat lover's pizza? Eh, not so fast.

Yes, the IARC’s announcement became a textbook example of media sensationalism, especially when it comes to slapping “cancer” on a headline. But while the risk of developing cancer from a heavy bacon habit might not be comparable in the least to smoking a pack a day, focusing solely on the carcinogenic factor ignores the many other health ills associated with too much meat consumption, which include an elevated risk of cardiac disease and developing type 2 diabetes. A federal study of half a million Americans, for example, found that those who consumed the most red meat overall were 30 percent more likely to die of any cause during a 10-year period than those who ate the least amount.

The upshot: The connection between processed meat and cancer may have been overhyped, but when it comes to general meat consumption, science hasn’t been able to show that it’s good for you.

Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition and Science Policy, said as much this year in the Washington Post: “If you look at every possible study with every population around the world, you see that meat-eating is neutral or is associated with slight harm. I’ve never seen a benefit.”