WHO Says Eating Processed Meat Causes Cancer

Last updated on: | Author: ProCon.org | MORE HEADLINES
Cite this page using APA, MLA, Chicago, and Turabian style guides
Image of frying processed meats (sausage and bacon).
Source: Shutterstock

The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified processed meats as carcinogenic to humans, and red meat as probably carcinogenic. The classification was reached by a group of 22 experts from 10 countries who reviewed more than 800 studies which investigated associations between the consumption of red and processed meat and cancer.

Processed meats include bacon, hot dogs, ham, and sausage, and are now classified by the WHO as “Group 1,” carcinogens. This grouping includes salted fish, alcoholic beverages, and tobacco products. According the WHO, researchers determined that “each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.”

Consumption of red meat, including beef, veal, pork, and lamb, was labeled as a “probable carcinogen” (Group 2A) by the WHO based upon “limited evidence” that human consumption of red meat causes cancer. Along with red meat, other probable carcinogens in Group 2A include exposure to petroleum refining, indoor wood smoke, and acrylamide – a chemical that can form in certain foods cooked under high temperatures by frying or roasting. Group 2B “possible carcinogens” include cell phone radiation, coffee, and pickled vegetables.

According to Dr. Kurt Straif, an epidemiologist with the WHO, “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.”

The North American Meat Institute stated in a press release that the WHO classification of “red and processed meat as cancer ‘hazards’ defies both common sense and numerous studies showing no correlation between meat and cancer and many more studies showing the many health benefits of balanced diets that include meat. Scientific evidence shows cancer is a complex disease not caused by single foods and that a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle choices are essential to good health.”

Over the past two decades studies have also shown that vegetarian diets can reduce the risk of cancer. About 5% of Americans are vegetarians. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that the average American eats about 52.3 pounds of beef, 57.4 pounds of chicken, and 43.5 pounds of pork, per person each year.


International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization, “IARC Monographs Evaluate Consumption of Red Meat and Processed Meat,” iarc.fr, Oct. 26, 2015

International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization, “IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans,” monographs.iarc.fr (accessed Oct. 29, 2015)

North American Meat Institute, “IARC Meat Vote Is Dramatic and Alarmist Overreach,” meatinstitute.org, Oct. 26, 2015

US Food and Drug Administration, “Acrylamide Questions and Answers,” fda.gov, Nov. 14, 2013

Sarah Zhang, “Bacon Causes Cancer? Sort of. Not Really. Ish.,” wired.com, Oct. 27, 2015