Risks from processed meat ‘remain very small’, group says

Meat Industry Ireland downplays classification of certain meats as ‘cancer hazards’

A Full English breakfast. Meat Industry Ireland has downplayed research linking  processed meat and cancer. Photograph: iStockphoto

A Full English breakfast. Meat Industry Ireland has downplayed research linking processed meat and cancer. Photograph: iStockphoto


Meat Industry Ireland (MII), the representative body for the State’s meat processors, has downplayed research linking processed and red meat to higher risks of cancer.

The group says the classification of certain meats as “cancer hazards” by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) should not result in undue concern.

MII said the findings were not based on new research, but on a review of previous research that was already available to governments and health authorities.

“The IARC acknowledges the risks from processed meat remain very small and health experts recognise the important nutritional benefits of meat in the diet, including providing vital nutrients and high quality protein,” it said.

The IARC’s classification of processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” has created a storm in public health circles.

The IACR’s review effectively puts bacon, ham and sausages on a par with tobacco and asbestos in terms of their cancer risk.

The review suggests 50g of processed meat a day, equivalent to less than two slices of bacon, increases the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18 per cent.

It also classifies red meat - which includes beef, lamb and pork - as a “probable carcinogenic”and links its consumption to pancreatic and prostate cancer.

The findings are likely to raise questions about the merits of a predominantly meat-based diet.

Processed meats

Processed meats are defined as those which have been modified with chemicals to change their taste or extend their shelf life.

While there are no official figures on the size of the State’s processed meat sector, industry sources say it represents a significant part of the meat sector, with pigmeat dominating.

According to market researcher Kantar, retail pigmeat sales in the Republic were worth €422 million last year, while pigmeat exports were valued at €570 million.

Bord Bia said it was monitoring the market reaction to the publication of the report at home and through its international office network.

“It is too early to make any assessment on what might be the eventual impact, if any, on consumption and trade,” it said.

A spokesman for Kerry Group, which owns the Denny brand, said the company’s products could be consumed as part of a healthy balanced diet, and said that a number of scientific reports point to the benefits of consuming meat as a source of protein.

However, the Department of Health confirmed that the IARC findings had been sent to an expert group for consideration in advance of its revised healthy eating guidelines, due to be issued before the end of the year.

In a statements, the department said that meat is an important source of protein, iron and vitamins, and “the most important goal was to try to eat a balanced diet”.