PhotoCattle ranchers and beef packers don't like it, but a study by the World Health Organization concludes that bacon, sausage, hot dogs and other processed meats cause cancer. Red meat probably does too, the study found.

In the politicized world in which consumers live, this is turning into a bonanza for meat lobbyists and publicists, who have been heating up the grill in preparation for the study's release.

The WHO study is based on the work of a 22-member panel of experts who studied decades of research findings on the link between cancer and mammal meat -- beef, pork, veal, goat, lamb and so forth -- as well as processed meats.

In an article in The Lancet, the researchers said they found a "positive [statistical] association between consumption of red meat and colorectal cancer" as well as "strong mechanistic evidence." The associations were seen primarily for colorectal cancer but also for pancreatic and prostate cancer.

Tenth of a pound

The experts concluded that each tenth of a pound (50 gram) portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

“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,” said Dr. Kurt Straif. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

”These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat,” said Dr. Christopher Wild, Director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer. “At the same time, red meat has nutritional value. Therefore, these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations."

Those are fighting words to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which represents cattelemen and the meat-packing industry.

“Cancer is a complex disease that even the best and brightest minds don’t fully understand,” said Shalene McNeill, PhD, RD, in a prepared statement. "As a registered dietitian and mother, my advice hasn’t changed. To improve all aspects of your health, eat a balanced diet, which includes lean meats like beef, maintain a healthy weight, be physically active and, please don’t smoke.”

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