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Glee, Panic and Yawns: U.S. Reacts to Report on Meat and Cancer

Lobbyists on both sides were ready for a new report on meat and cancer.
Image: Sausages
Sausage being prepared for sale at Wurstfest, an annual German festival held in New Braunfels, Texas in Nov 2006.K. Jessie Slaten / AP File

The meat industry was ready with its response.

Even before the International Agency for Research on Cancer issued its determination that processed meats such as sausage definitely cause cancer, and that red meat probably does, the North American Meat Institute had a statement waiting to go.

"IARC Meat Vote Is Dramatic and Alarmist Overreach," the statement was headlined.

"IARC says you can enjoy your yoga class, but don’t breathe air," the group added, apparently referring to an IARC report that found air pollution can cause cancer.

“IARC says you can enjoy your yoga class, but don’t breathe air."

The vegan advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) was equally ready.

"Since the World Health Organization confirms that eating bacon, hot dogs, ham, and other processed meats causes cancer, PETA is offering a free vegan starter kit and a personal vegan mentor to anyone ready to ward off cancer as well as a slew of other health issues by going vegan," the group said in a gleeful email.

"Our lives may just depend on choosing a veggie burger over a bratwurst, and PETA's seasoned vegan mentors are standing by to help with a wealth of information on healthy, easy-to-find meat-free meals to enjoy at home or out on the town."

It's a big market to fight over. In 2012, the average American consumed 71.2 pounds of red meat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And most experts expect the U.S. public to cling stubbornly to their beloved bacon, sausages and burgers.

Health groups had been expecting the public relations battle, however. Meat industry representatives had been allowed to sit in on the IARC’s deliberations, and they’ve been fighting the medical reports about the health effects of meat for decades.

"Sadly, IARC’s report has already provoked new hysteria from the meat industry and is likely to stir up its allies in Congress," said Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"They will follow the playbook of all industries that feel they are under attack — asbestos, tobacco, and coal are three that come to mind — and shout from the rooftops that the science is in doubt. It’s not," she added.

"The meat industry, which is attacking the IARC, has less credibility than the Flat Earth Society. IARC is the gold standard for rigor, comprehensiveness, and reasonableness — all qualities in short supply in the meat industry and its friends in Congress.”

Eating less meat is also good for the environment, said the Natural Resource Defense Council, which points out that raising crops to feed to food animals consumes many times more water than raising crops for human food.

"If history is any guide, expect Big Meat to push back hard on the new IARC classification. It will likely try and raise doubt on the well-considered opinions of nutrition and health experts," said Dr. David Wallinga, the group's senior health officer.

"Bottom line: Eat less and better meat. Better for you, better for the planet."

As Americans worried out loud over whether they must stop eating bacon altogether, cancer research groups pointed out that they have been telling people to cut back on meat for a while now.

"The meat industry, which is attacking the IARC, has less credibility than the Flat Earth Society."

“For years AICR has been recommending that individuals reduce the amount of beef, pork, lamb and other red meats in their diets and avoid processed meats like bacon, sausage and hot dogs," said Susan Higginbotham of the American Institute for Cancer Research.

“The American Cancer Society has recommended limiting consumption of red and processed meat specifically since 2002,” Susan Gapstur of that group said.

Why so much noise now?

One big reason: the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration are due to issue their food guidelines to the U.S. public by the end of the year.

The guidelines, rewritten every five years, are subject to intense lobbying by various industry and health groups and can greatly affect what foods are supplied to schools, as well as what types of foods federal programs will pay for or subsidize.