Health News Digest


November 2, 2015

The Only Thing We Have To Fear…Are The Fear Entrepreneurs Themselves

By Michael D. Shaw

You don’t have to be a fan of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to appreciate a great line. The title, of course, is a riff on FDR’s classic “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” This was from his first inaugural address (March 4, 1933), and focused on the Depression, and his plans to solve it via government action. Unfortunately, his programs were largely ineffective, if not also ill-advised.

Which brings us to our current fearful matter: The demonizing of red meat and processed meat products, based on a textbook example of science by press release. In this case, it is Press Release No. 240, entitled “IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat,” dated 26 October 2015. (IARC = International Agency for Research on Cancer, affiliated with the UN/WHO) Here are the key findings:

1.     IARC Monographs Program classified the consumption of red meat as 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 association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.

2.     Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.

3.     The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. In addition, each 100 gram portion of red meat eaten daily increases the risk by 17%.

As to definitions…

“Red meat” refers to all types of mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat. “Processed meat” refers to meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.


Scary stuff, right? Maybe not.

In epidemiological terms, relative risks of 1.18 and 1.17 are statistically insignificant, and one wonders why the “experts” at IARC ignored this. Indeed, as a rule of thumb, an RR of at least 2.0 is necessary to indicate a cause and effect relationship, and a RR of 3.0 is preferred. This sentiment is echoed by most medical journals, the FDA, and the National Cancer Institute. Contrast this with the relative risk of lung cancer in smokers, RR=12.00.

Thus, we start off with junk science. But wait, there’s more. The IARC classification system does not assess the carcinogenic risk of the given agent, but rather, its rating of the quality of supporting evidence. Included in the dreaded Group 1 are alcoholic beverages, asbestos, benzene, diesel exhaust, mustard gas, tobacco products, and now…processed meat. However, this does not mean that processed meat is as carcinogenic as tobacco products or asbestos, even if that’s what such bogus authorities as Dr. Neal Barnard might want you to believe.

These are the five IARC groups…

Group 1—Carcinogenic to humans

Group 2A—Probably carcinogenic to humans

Group 2B—Possibly carcinogenic to humans

Group 3—Not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans

Group 4—Probably not carcinogenic to humans

Of the 985 agents tested to date by IARC, only one (Caprolactam, used in the manufacture of synthetic fibers) was placed into Group 4.

To recap, IARC has taken insignificant epidemiological findings to classify red and processed meat as carcinogens; and is not terribly concerned about people drawing the wrong conclusions from processed meat being in the same group as real, notorious carcinogens.

Naturally, one good turn deserves another, and it only took minutes for Barnard’s inaptly-named Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine—little more than an animal rights/vegan front group, and no stranger to junk science—to post this gem:

“Schools and hospitals are required to protect students and patients from cancer-causing asbestos,” says Physicians Committee director of nutrition education Susan Levin, M.S., R.D. “If the World Health Organization says processed meats are just as dangerous, it’s time to protect them from hot dogs and pepperoni, too.”

Don’t hold your breath waiting for IARC to correct this preposterous overreach. In fact, expect much more outrageous claptrap, as the sat fat/low fat meme melts away, and the associated charlatans defend their crumbling empires.