Processed meat cancer link is with high consumption, says food body

Food Safety Authority says red meat contains good ‘gems’, but better not to eat it every day

Red and processed meats should not be treated as an everyday food, according to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.

Dr Mary Flynn, chief specialist in public health nutrition with the authority, stressed the report said there was "only a small risk" of cancer but "definitely high intake, particularly of processed meat, is associated with colorectal cancer".

She was speaking in response to the World Health Organisation report which found that eating 50g of processed meat daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer.

Dr Flynn said processed meat was high in salt and fat and not good for the heart.


On average, however, Irish people eat 35g of processed meat a day, the equivalent of one-and-a-bit sausages, and the report said the risk increased with every 50g extra consumed, equivalent to two sausages. In some studies the risk increased by 17 per cent and in others by 7 per cent.

Dr Flynn, a professor at the University of Ulster, said the WHO report was similar to others from the World Cancer Research Fund. Since 1971 it has examined 900 substances and has positively identified 400 as being carcinogenic.

She said the study described the link as category one, which meant it had convincing evidence.

Oily fish

However, she said not treating red meat and particularly processed meat, as an everyday food had been the authority’s advice for many years.

She said meat had natural “gem” compounds that are good in small doses.

“The gem in red meat is its iron content” and women in particular often lack sufficient iron, impairing cognitive function. But “like everything, too much of a good thing is bad for you”.

Oily fish has vitamin D and omega 3s, which are protective against cancer. Irish people eat a lot of chicken and there is no link between chicken and colon cancer.

If people eat fish and chicken four or five days a week, it means two or three days for red meat. Dr Flynn said people should also consider vegetarian options on some days.

Unlike other reports, this one has not given all the data, she says, but reading between the lines she believes “meat is still a valuable food, but it is just high consumption” that is problematic.

The authority’s advice is for 300g of red meat a week: a 100g portion three days a week. “That’s about the size of your palm, without fingers and thumb.”

It should be treated as a pleasure and enjoyed, but in small portions and not on a daily basis, she added.

Healthy eating

People should not be alarmed. “The risk is among high consumers,” she said. “It’s the people who take a lot of processed meats who you’d like to see take note of this.”

She urged people to read the authority's guidelines, particularly pages 10-11 of its publication Healthy Eating and Active Living for Adults and Children over Five Years, available free on

Craft sausage-maker Jane Russell has described the report as "a bit alarmist" for the customer who's trying to work out what they can and cannot eat.

Ms Russell, whose handmade sausage business is based in Kilcullen, Co Kildare, said the report was taking quite a blanket approach, including fresh meat with processed.

But “it’s a very big thing to say that all processed meats have such a link”.

“We use only fresh pork and don’t use any nitrates in our sausages and use only a single preservative.”

Ms Russell said she would be “a little bit nervous over the next few weeks” about people’s reactions to the report, but she said their customers were well informed and would buy their sausages because they used only fresh pork.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times