Keep bacon, abolish the World Health Organisation

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared that processed meat – like bacon, sausages and ham – is a Class 1 carcinogen. In the crazy world of public-health busybodies, cigarettes are not the only smoky item that causes cancer. And it’s not just processed meat under the spotlight. Red meat has also been declared a ‘probable’ cause of cancer, too.

However, before you turn your nose up at that ham butty, it’s worth noting the comments of Kurt Straif, head of the monographs programme at WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which made the declaration: ‘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. In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public-health importance.’ It sounds more like pointless scaremongering to me.

Perhaps of more importance might be WHO’s bizarre classification of carcinogens, which now puts processed meat in the same category as smoking, asbestos and arsenic. The fact that it took les wonks in Lyon a year to dig up enough evidence to come to their conclusion hardly suggests the case against processed meat is watertight. Compare that to the classic Fifties study by Austin Bradford Hill and Richard Doll on smoking and cancer, which found an enormous correlation between cigarettes smoked and lung cancer: persistent smokers were 24 times more likely to develop lung cancer than non-smokers.

The public-health world is so enamoured with carcinogen-chasing that the mildest threats are lumped in with serious risks. In a press release, Betsy Booren, vice president of scientific affairs at the North American Meat Institute, offers a sarcastic rejoinder to the IARC’s new declaration: ‘It was clear sitting in the IARC meeting that many of the panelists were aiming for a specific result despite old, weak, inconsistent, self-reported intake data. They tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome.’ Booren adds: ‘Red and processed meat are among 940 agents reviewed by the IARC and found to pose some level of theoretical “hazard”. Only one substance, a chemical in yoga pants, has been declared by the IARC not to cause cancer.’

With such egregious declarations on cancer, and having dropped the ball with devastating consequences in its response to the recent ebola outbreak in West Africa, maybe it’s time to take a long hard look at WHO itself.

Rob Lyons is campaigns manager at Action on Consumer Choice.

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Topics Politics


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