It’s déjà vu all over again, as the late Yogi Berra supposedly once said.
That was my response to the new headline-grabbing claims that everybody should quit eating meat because it causes cancer.
I’ve spent my life as a rancher and meat producer and I’ve heard it all before, from the cancer warnings about bacon and its nitrates to the admonitions that nobody should grill steaks because of the charcoal.
Later on, we always learn that these are false alarms, fueled by groups that crave publicity and a media that loves to sensationalize.
The debunking of this latest cancer scare is already underway.
Before we get started, though, let’s check in with Cancer Research UK, a London-based organization that funds research on cancer. Its mission, therefore, is to use science to defeat this deadly scourge.
Here’s what it said about last week’s news: “A prolonged high-meat diet isn’t terribly good for you. But a steak, bacon sandwich, or sausage bap a few times a week probably isn’t much to worry about. And overall the risks are much lower than for other things linked to cancer—such as smoking.”
In other words, it’s just like what your mother told you—and what I’ve passed on to my own kids and grandkids: Everything in moderation. Eat a balanced diet. Yes, you may have a hot dog for lunch today.
Now let’s dive in to the particulars of last week’s hullabaloo.
On October 26, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a French-based arm of the United Nations, declared that processed meats are “carcinogenic” and that red meat is “probably carcinogenic.”
We need to start with the source. The IARC has a decades-long history of scaremongering. It has claimed to identify hundreds of potentially cancer-causing agents, from the air we breathe to the coffee we drink. It has also promoted the now-discredited hysteria that cell phones trigger brain cancer.
To complicate matters, when the IARC issues an allegation, the public never knows how to interpret it. The group’s press release last week, for example, said that the daily consumption of processed meat increases the risk of colon cancer by 18 percent. On first glance, that’s a startling figure. But what does it really mean? What’s the baseline—i.e., 18 percent compared to what? To vegetarians? To people who eat a salami sandwich everyday? And how do these supposed risks compare to, say, asbestos?
It provides no useful advice on how we should lead our lives.
“What we have is a classic ivory-tower mentality: a group of academics who hole up in a room, make proclamations to the world, and ignore the chaos that consistently ensues,” wrote Ed Yong in The Atlantic last week. “Perhaps we need a separate classification scheme for scientific organizations that are ‘confusogenic to humans.’”
Cancer is a complex disease whose causes can’t be reduced to simplistic press releases or headlines. Much of it involves genetics. A lot of it also comes from behavior, such as fitness and exercise and even exposure to sunlight. Food plays a role too, but in conjunction with these other factors.
In its mad pursuit of attention, the IARC neglects these critical details. It also ignores contradictory evidence. It did not, for example, examine the results of the Women’s Health Initiative and the Polyp Prevention Trial, a pair of large, long-term studies on diet. They found that reducing red-meat consumption by 20 percent does not reduce the risk of colon cancer or its recurrence.
I don’t want to get bogged down in the he-said/she-said business of dueling studies and statistics. I want to make a larger point.
Due to the irresponsibility of groups like IARC, we may have reached our cancer-scare saturation point. When we hear news of a study that claims to identify a cause of cancer, our immediate reaction often is to roll our eyes and comment, snarkily, that everything causes cancer.
In truth, we need world-class research into cancer and its cures. What we don’t need are poorly worded press releases and half-baked headlines.
When it comes to IARC, let’s remember one more Yogi Berra-ism: You made too many wrong mistakes.
Carol Keiser owns and operates cattle feeding operations in Kansas, Nebraska and Illinois. She volunteers as a Truth About Trade & Technology / Global Farmer Network board member (www.truthabouttrade.org).