NEW YORK: Meat industry organizations are turning up the heat on a report released by the World Health Organization on Monday that claims processed meats such as bacon and hot dogs cause cancer.
The report placed processed meats in the same category of cancer risk as tobacco and asbestos. However, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which as part of the WHO set the classifications, explained in a Q&A that the list does not mean they are equally dangerous.
Meat organizations quickly contended on Monday that there is no scientific evidence to back up the WHO’s report.
"This has been a major overreach on the part of the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer," said Janet Riley, the North American Meat Institute’s SVP of public affairs. "There was no consensus in this vote and the abstract shows that the science is quite split, so their definitive statement is hard to reconcile with the actual science."
Although the Institute issued a statement on Friday, right after the WHO report leaked, Riley explained that Monday is the critical day for the group to make its case.
The organization has posted information and resources on its nutrition website, including videos and a Q&A, in response to the report.
"Industry groups are held to a higher standard of evidence," said Riley. "We have to prove very carefully everything we say, so everything we are saying is well referenced, footnoted, and the science is carefully catalogued."
NAMI has linked to its statements on Twitter, using infographics that illustrate the benefits of including meat in a balanced diet.
Red & processed meats are part of healthy, balanced diets the world over. Here's what you need to know https://t.co/fpLHynFkgX— N. American Meat Ins (@MeatInstitute) October 26, 2015
The National Cattleman’s Beef Association has also communicated that science does not support the report’s opinion on a link between red meat and cancer.
The WHO report should be taken in context, concurred Christin Fernandez, director of media relations and public affairs at the National Restaurant Association.
"The findings look only at whether a substance could, under some circumstance and level, pose a cancer risk," she said, via email. "The determination also disregards the nutritional benefits of consuming meat. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans includes the consumption of lean meat, including red meat and processed meat, as part of a healthy, balanced diet."
The National Pork Producers Council is pushing a similar message, emphasizing in its comms that the WHO’s conclusions were based on "relatively weak statistical associations from epidemiological studies that were not designed to show cause and effect."
The council’s director of communications, Dave Warner, also said that the WHO’s report is "questionable."
"There are studies throughout the spectrum on meat and cancer with some saying there is no link and some saying there is a link," Warner said. "But there is nothing definitive and therefore, we think that meat should remain a part of a healthful, balanced diet. Meat has a lot of vitamins and minerals that you can’t get in a plant-based diet."
The National Pork Producers Council has posted a press release to its website and is doing media interviews, but on social media it is focused on changing the conversation about bacon.
"A lot of the headlines have mentioned bacon causing cancer, but the report doesn’t specify bacon – it just talks about processed meat," he said. "Certainly bacon would be a processed meat, but it doesn’t say bacon will give you cancer."
The Council also tweeted a story on Monday about a 116-year-old woman who eats bacon daily.
Warner said he wouldn’t call the headlines about bacon causing cancer false, but added that "if the news story is written by a good journalist, it will include the fact [as mentioned in the report] that the risk of getting cancer from processed foods is small – so there is no worry here."
American Association of Meat Processors outreach specialist Chris Young said it is important to note that only one agent out of 940 reviewed by the IARC was not found to pose some level of theoretical hazard. Meat was on the list of cancer-causing agents, along with sunlight, breathing air, alcohol, wood dust, and working the night shift.
"The thing I would encourage media to do is to look at all the items on that list," Young said. "Meat is a big deal and I understand that, but so is the air that we breathe. The findings are not comical, but it is almost like if you live here on Earth, something could cause cancer."
The American Association of Meat Processors was disappointed with the classification, but not completely surprised by it, Young said.
"They didn’t do a look at the overall science of everything and some of the nutrition-based [benefits], and studies that show no correlation between meat and cancer were left out," he said. "But we were not surprised because it seemed that some of the panelists [behind the decision] were already leaning one way or the other before it began."
Although Young said the report could harm the meat industry, he is not overly concerned.
"If people in general get to see the whole story, then I would hope long-term it is not going to impact the meat industry," he said.
Young added that, in order for the real story to be communicated, it is essential for meat industry organizations to stand with one voice. The American Association of Meat Processors is working with NAMI and other associations to get the same message out, he said.
Riley noted that she is reading a lot of skepticism on social media about the WHO report.
"We are seeing a lot of pushback and comments on stories, which is encouraging," said Riley. "I think consumers just can’t reconcile the message with their own personal experience and they are becoming more and more skeptical about diet and health news because it just seems to change week-to-week."
Brands let industry groups grill the report
Riley said that because this is not a brand-specific issue, rather a broader issue for the meat industry as a whole, he has advised brands to "feel free to refer calls to me."
When reached for comment by PRWeek, a number of food companies did just that.
Hormel Foods manager of external communications Rick Williamson said via email that the company’s health, science, and wellness advisory council will review the WHO report with its scientists and nutrition experts.
It added that Hormel’s experts "also understand that this report did not look at the benefits of meat consumption."
Williamson listed nutrients contained in meat, such as high levels of protein, amino acids, vitamins B1, B6, and B12, and riboflavin.
"North American experts say the best way to stay healthy and reduce the risk of cancer is to eat a balanced diet, maintain a healthy body weight, get plenty of exercise, and avoid tobacco," he added in the statement. "Meat is an essential component of this balanced diet, and Americans, on average, currently consume meat at recommended dietary levels."
For more information on behalf of the industry, Williamson referred to the North American Meat Institute.
Tyson Foods, which owns and operates brands such as Jimmy Dean, Ball Park, and Hillshire Brands, also deferred comment to the Institute.
As of Monday afternoon, Hormel and Tyson had not posted any information about the report on social media.
Representatives from Arby’s, Oscar Mayer, and Jack Link’s Jerky were not immediately available for comment.
Health-related government organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the office of US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy had not posted statements about the report on social media as of press time.
An HHS spokesperson said Monday that it had not yet fully reviewed the report, but that the department and the US Department of Agriculture are considering various data and public comment as the federal government develops dietary guidelines for Americans for 2015.
The spokesperson also noted that its 2010 dietary guidelines recommended a healthy eating pattern of a range of foods.
The IARC also sought to clear the air on Monday about what exactly it was saying. It posted a Q&A on its website – though the portal was inaccessible as of press time – and on Twitter clarifying that while meat was placed in the same category as smoking and asbestos, that does not mean the risks are equal.
Q: Does it mean consumption of processed meat is as carcinogenic as tobacco smoking and asbestos? pic.twitter.com/yCYl6eKEEG— WHO (@WHO) October 26, 2015
This story was updated on October 27 with quotes from an HHS spokesperson.