Yesterday, the World Health Organization (WHO) made waves with meat-eaters around the world by classifying processed meat as carcinogenic, and red meat as probably carcinogenic:
Processed Meat: Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer. Red meat: After thoroughly reviewing the accumulated scientific literature, a Working Group of 22 experts from 10 countries convened by the IARC Monographs Programme classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect. This association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.
The significance of the science behind WHO’s findings needs more explanation. For example, we need better understanding of the actual statistical significance of the findings. Still, the news is hardly a surprise. Correlations between red meat and health issues have been drawn for years. The study’s public conclusions open another door for regulators to make meaningful strides in improving dietary choices negatively impacting public health. To save lives, reduce rates of cancer, and protect children, regulation of carcinogenic food is probably necessary, and likely inevitable.
The question is, how?
Should hot dogs come with a warning label about their propensity to cause cancer? Should we focus on portion control? Issue a deterring sales tax? Should Congress give FDA the authority to regulate processed meats like other carcinogenic products, namely tobacco?
The memory of NYC’s soda wars is fresh. A measure as simple as portion control caused tremendous strife, lawsuits and public outrage. If New Yorkers got that upset about soda, imagine how this nation might respond to a perceived threat to hot dogs? Bacon?? Lunchmeat???
Much remains to be understood about WHO’s findings and there is not an obvious path forward. We have many years of regulatory precedents, both successes and failures, from which to draw. We wear seatbelts in cars and trans-fats are being banished from our food. On the flip side, we failed to limit marketing sugary foods to children and we are still drinking soda with abandon.
WHO’s report affords the public health community an opportunity to make meaningful change in the diets of people around the world, but we must tread carefully to maximize its potential. Dialogue and consensus are going to be key ingredients in devising a plan to turn these findings into meaningful regulation. I am optimistic. If the public health community figured out how to prohibit smoking on airplanes, surely there is hope for reducing the incidence of bacon-related cancers.
The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.