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Hot Dogs, Cancer, and WHO

Processed meat raises red flag
By Scott Warner

Lethal concerns raised about a food that has anchored countless American meals for generations has drawn action from the Chicago Medical Society. At its Nov. 10 Council meeting, CMS passed a resolution to adopt policy that encourages Americans to reduce or moderate their consumption of processed meat to reduce their risk of cancer.

CMS based its action on a report issued Oct. 26, by a research division of the World Health Organization (WHO) that announced sausage, bacon, ham, corned beef and other processed meats cause colorectal cancer. The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified processed meats as Group 1 carcinogens. Red meat, on the other hand, refers to all mammalian muscle meat, including, beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat, and is classified as Group 2A, probably carcinogenic to humans. By processed meats, the WHO is referring to pork, poultry, beef, offal, and byproducts that have had their taste changed or shelf life extended through such methods as curing, smoking or the addition of preservatives or salt.

According to Kurt Straif, MD, PhD, one of WHO’s international experts, the risk of individuals developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat is small, “but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” he said. This is one of the most aggressive positions taken against meat by a major health organization, and while the WHO report is expected to face major criticism in the United States, the Chicago Medical Society has recommended adoption of the aforementioned policy.

Initially, the CMS Public Health Committee debated WHO’s announcement encouraging people to reduce their intake of processed meats to lower their risk of colorectal cancer. WHO reported that eating 50-gram portions of processed meat daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. However, there are no reverse studies showing the impact on cancer rates when people eliminate processed meats from their diet.

Research in the United Kingdom shows a correlation between cancer and a mix of factors that include processed meats, tobacco and asbestos, without singling out any individual factor.

While some on the committee felt that CMS should wait for published guidelines before taking a stand on the issue, others argued against trying to understand the entire scope. It was agreed that the WHO announcement is indeed a “game-changer,” and CMS can support policy encouraging patients to reduce their consumption of processed meats.

“Although the risks are not as great as for smoking, there has been credible scientific evidence to suggest a link between cancer and processed meat consumption for at least half a decade,” says Ajay Chauhan, DO, chair of the CMS Public Health Committee. “It is indeed a game changer that WHO reviewed the data and took a stance in a very public fashion.”

The CMS Public Health Committee reiterated that the IARC, an independent cancer agency under the auspices of WHO, has evaluated the carcinogenicity of processed meat, and found sufficient evidence that consumption causes colorectal cancer. “For the health and safety of our patients, we believe they should be educated about the potential cancer-causing effects of eating processed meat daily,” Dr. Chauhan said.

Sources: Chicago Medical Society Public Health Committee, World Health Organization, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune.

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