Study points to red meat as a cause of cancer

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Nov 5, 2007
by WLJ

—Industry advocates blast report, calling it anti-meat.

An alarming study published last week by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) pointed to a potential link between red meat consumption and cancer development. The report, which was an update to a study conducted a decade earlier, caused ripples of concern in many consumer media outlets and rankled meat and beef industry experts who called the report alarmist, unfounded and biased against meat consumption.

The WCRF study focused on a vast number of outside research on the possible cancer-causing effects of an array of different foods, including meat, vegetables and fish, as well as individual vitamins and minerals, in their study. The findings, according to the group, indicate that the evidence linking meat consumption to certain types of cancer is “stronger than it was in the mid-1990s.”

The panel of researchers concluded that: “There is limited evidence suggesting that red meat is a cause of cancers of the oesophagus, lung, pancreas and endometrium; that processed meat is a cause of cancers of the oesophagus, lung, stomach and prostate; and that foods containing iron are a cause of colorectal cancer. There is also limited, inconsistent evidence, mostly from case-control studies, that animal foods that are grilled, barbequed, or smoked, are a cause of stomach cancer.”

The study’s authors concluded that the evidence of cancer caused by poultry, fish and eggs is insubstantial.

Following the release of the report, several cattle and meat industry groups, including the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and American Meat Institute (AMI), labeled the study biased and dismissed its finding as a tactic meant to scare consumers away from meat consumption.
“WCRF’s conclusions are extreme, unfounded and out of step with dietary guidelines,” said AMI Foundation Vice President of Scientific Affairs Randy Huffman, Ph.D. “Headlines associated with this report may give consumers another case of nutrition whiplash. The consistent finding in diet and cancer research is inconsistency,” he added. “No health groups should be dispensing clear-cut recommendations on specific foods when studies continue to contradict each other time after time.” Huffman stressed that the recommendations stand in sharp contrast to mainstream advice in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

“The causes of cancer are extremely complex and involve factors like genetics, the environment, lifestyle and a host of other issues, Huffman noted. “Given the complexities and conflicting research findings, it is inconceivable that WCRF could draw definitive conclusions and make such precise recommendations about specific food categories.”
He also stressed that he was extremely concerned that some contrary studies were left out of the WCRF review. In particular, Huffman said that the largest study ever done on red meat consumption and its impact on colon cancer, conducted in 2004 by the Harvard School of Public Health, was left out of the report. The Harvard analysis involved 725,000 men and women and was presented at the 2004 American Association for Cancer Research Conference. That study showed no relationship between red meat consumption and colon cancer.

The Harvard study, titled, “Meat and fat intake and colorectal cancer risk: A pooled analysis of 14 prospective studies,” was not included in the WCRF findings, Huffman said.
“This study uses what is considered perhaps the most reliable approach to analyzing relationships: pooling original data together and analyzing it,” Huffman said. “Given the study’s size, approach and very important finding, we’d like to know why it hasn’t published. WCRF and consumers deserve access to this federally-funded data which shows that red meat and processed meat were not associated with colon cancer.”

“When this Harvard data showing no relationship between red meat and cancer is coupled with studies that found no association or only weak associations between red meat and cancer, we must absolutely dispute WCRF’s conclusions,” Huffman said.—John Robinson, WLJ Editor.