Meat, everything and nothing to be worried about
“In the 19th century […] food laws were responding to threats that were terrifying and direct. There was nothing theoretical about the arsenic-laced lozenges that killed 20 people in Bradford in 1858. Modern dangers from food tend to be different. In the words of a lawyer, “Harm has become ephemeral and distant, not hard and immediate.” The threat of carcinogenicity, hovering over so much food, is almost impossible to connect with the daily act of eating. If you ate an arsenic lozenge, you keeled over more or less instantly. Now, you may eat thousands of supposed “carcinogens”, from burnt toast to pesticides and additives, over many years before you develop cancer; or you may be lucky and never get ill at all. There is another difference too. Then, food fear cropped up in specific epidemics of deceit. Now, it is so omnipresent it is comical”.
Meat is having its fifteen minutes of fame these days. Since the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) published its “evaluation of the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red and processed meat” on October 26th, dozens of articles about the topic have been published and dozens of channels have transmitted the news. When the news was first broadcast in Spain, the media became crazy with buzzworthy statements like “Meat is the new tobacco” or “The WHO declares meat as harmful as tobacco”. I even found an article titled “How many slices of bacon equals a pack of tobacco?”. If I was not furious, I would be extremely surprised at how easy it is to distort such information.
Over the past 50 years, meat has become more present, in different rates and proportions, in almost every diet around the globe. But the increase in meat consumption has come at a great cost. Most people will eat meat at least twice today and think is completely normal. It is not. The astonishing decline in its price and the daily routine of consuming it in large quantities are an incredibly modern phenomenon brought about primarily due to the mass industrialization, which is all about getting the animals as fat as possible as fast as possible. And of course, as cheap as possible. Profit comes first; nutrition, welfare, environment and many other important aspects come latter.
So the evaluation and subsequent announcement by the IARC should affect and challenge our eating decisions. But does it? Let’s clear the air a little and see what the IARC actually said. It’s also useful to remember that the IARC chooses which agents to evaluate based on “the availability of scientific evidence of carcinogenicity and evidence that people may be exposed to the agent”. That basically means that the objective of the IARC is not to conduct their own study, but to evaluate all the studies already conducted and published worldwide and from them reach a final assessment.
IARC classifies the products/substance it studies in 4 categories: 1 (causes cancer), 2A (probably causes cancer), 2B (possibly causes cancer), 3 (not classifiable as a cause of cancer) and 4 (probably not a cause of cancer). Red meat was classified in category 2A and processed meat in category 1. It’s true that tobacco has been classified in the same category as processed meat, but what is essential to understand is that this classification doesn’t tell us how strong a connection one substance or another is in causing cancer, only that a link has been shown between both substances. As Suzi Gage writes in the Guardian:
“But just because all these things cause cancer, doesn’t mean they’re all as risky as each other. A substance can increase your risk of cancer a small amount, or, like tobacco, a huge amount. Comparing them like for like is just really confusing to anyone trying to work out how to lead a healthy life. […] The risk of lung cancer from smoking is extremely high. Of all cases of lung cancer, evidence suggests that 86% of these are caused by tobacco. And lung cancer isn’t the only type of cancer caused by smoking. CRUK estimate that 19% of all cancers are caused by smoking.”
This fantastic infographic from Cancer Research UK shows the difference clearly:
In the past few weeks, opinions have come and gone on all kind of questions regarding the announcement on the supposed carcinogenic properties of meat. How much red meat is okay to eat? Is eating meat really as bad as smoking? Is any kind of red meat safe? Should we all become vegetarians? The consensus seems hard to come by and there is good reason for it. The study released by the IARC has not answered any of these questions, and whatever you read online or skim through the newspaper is only that, an opinion. This important detail, that the piece is partially an opinion, is most of the time not clarified, and so the final reader is lost in a storm of views, beliefs and judgments.
The World Health Organization (WHO) released a very useful Q&A about the issue that I recommend everyone reads. It will not take more than 10 minutes and it clearly states what has been and has not been concluded. For example, these questions were not answered by the study: Do methods of cooking meat change the risk? Is the risk higher in children, in elderly people, in women or in men? How much meat is safe to eat? Is there a type of red meat that is safer? Should we be vegetarians? Thus, if you read an article about the IARC study that gives an answer to any of this you know that that answer is an opinion (or another study, if they mention it). Another important issue to understand is that red meat is, ” all mammalian muscle meat, including, beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat”, and processed meat is, ” meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation. Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but processed meats may also contain other red meats, poultry, offal, or meat by-products such as blood”.
What about the way that the meat was raised? Never believe someone who tells you that the way you raise an animal makes no difference. No one would ever say that what a person eats has no impact on their body. As we all know, it’s not just about your physical appearance, about how slim or chubby you are, but about your inner health, diabetes and heart diseases and cancer and so many other diseases. It’s madness not to care about the conditions in which the meat you are eating was raised. What did the animal eat? How much space did they have to move around? Was it living in a condition of stress? How was it slaughtered? Bee Wilson explains in her book Swindled that:
“In 2004, chicken – a supposedly low-fat, “healthy” meat by comparison with beef – was found to contain nearly three times as much fat as it had 35 years earlier, thanks to changes in farming methods. Professor Michael Crawford, an expert on fats who works at the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition at London Metropolitan University, commented that consumers who bought modern chicken in the belief it was good for them were “being sold a pup down the line”. […] This was the case even with chicken that had been plainly roasted with lemon and salt, without so much as a drizzling of oil. In 1970, chicken contained 8.6 gr of fat per 100 grams; now, the average supermarket chicken contained a whooping 22.8 grams. A single roasted chicken leg had more fat than a Big Mac.”
Otherwise, just ask your butcher. If they are any good, they will tell you that the way the animal was raised and slaughtered has indeed a huge impact in the meat. I’m not vegetarian, but I’m sometimes surprised about how we tend to forget that meat is a dead animal, an animal that needed time to grow and eat its way to the slaughterhouse:
Good meat is more expensive and for good reason. I have seen enough examples of how industrial animal production works to not be responsible for its flourishing empire. I prefer to eat a little less of it and spend a little more on it. I know that there are many people out there who may not be able to afford to make such a choice, but they are not the problem. The problem is all those people who could choose differently and decide not to do so. Maybe because it’s easier, because they don’t know better, or don’t want to. Or maybe because they would rather spend their money on something else. Most of the time, the price difference will be lower than what a coffee in Starbucks costs.
Nowadays, we don’t only “need food” but we “want food”. Most of us live in a world that has given us the possibility of choosing what we want to eat. As with the right to vote, we have forgotten the privilege of this right. And the responsibility that comes with it.
 WILSON, BEE (2008). Swindled, the dark history of food fraud, from poisoned candy to counterfeit coffee, p. 298
IARC Q&A, https://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/Monographs-Q&A.pdf
 WILSON, BEE (2008). Swindled, the dark history of food fraud, from poisoned candy to counterfeit coffee, p. 302