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Consuming beef - Advocacy groups defend against international report

Written by Saige Albert

Lyon, France – On Oct. 26, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released a report classifying red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans, based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect.”

Wyoming Beef Council Executive Director Ann Wittmann comments, “The scientific evidence used is inadequate to reach consensus on cancer risk.”

“It is unrealistic to isolate a single food as a cause of cancer when we take into account the many different foods people eat, as well as whether they live a healthy lifestyle and if they are exposed to any other environmental factors,” she adds.

Preparing a report

When tasked by the World Health Organization to look at the carcinogenicity of red meat and processed meat, a working group of 22 experts from 10 countries convened in Lyon, France to deliberate the issue.

In developing their report, the working group looked at more than 800 studies analyzing at the association of consumption of red and processed meat with the incidence of cancer.

Facts About Beef, an organization devoted to debunking myths about beef, noted that, after seven days of deliberation, IARC did not reach a consensus of the 22 experts. They further added that IARC “proudly highlighted they strive for and typically achieve” consensus.

“In this case, they had to settle for ‘majority’ agreement,” said Facts About Beef in a news release.

Inside the report

IARC’s report notes that red meat be classified as a Group 2A carcinogen, or possibly carcinogenic to humans, and processed meat was classified as Group 1, or carcinogenic to humans. Limited evidence was the standard for classifying red meat, and sufficient evidence was the basis of the decision on processed meat.

“The consumption of meat varies greatly between countries, with from a few percent up to 100 percent of people eating red meat, depending on the country, and somewhat lower proportions eating processed meat,” IARC says. “The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.”

Red meat includes all types of mammalian muscle meat, including beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat. Processed meat is meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance the flavor or improve preservation.

Beef perspective

In preparing for the hearing on carcinogenicity of meat, Wittmann says the beef checkoff submitted six sets of comments based on scientific studies to be included in the review process. In addition, Shalene McNeill, head of Human Nutrition Research for the checkoff, was an observer in the process.

McNeill says, “Billions of dollars have been spent on studies all over the world, and no single food has ever been proven to cause or cure cancer. The opinion by the IARC committee to list red meat as a probable carcinogen does not change that fact. The available scientific evidence simply does not support a causal relationship between red or processed meat and any type of cancer.”

Wyo impacts

In anticipation of the report's release, the Wyoming Beef Council formed a strategy to neutralize negative statements about beef.

“We knew we couldn’t influence the paper, so we got out in front and made a strategy,” Wittmann comments, noting that the beef checkoff began working far in advance to defend against the report. “This is a great example of our checkoff dollars at work.”

Wittmann further notes that no impact has been seen from the report in Wyoming to this point.

“I don’t believe this will have an impact,” she explains. “We’ve been watching the media very closely. We knew the report was going to be negative, and we assumed we couldn’t turn it positive, so our goal is for it to be neutral – and that is what we’ve seen.”

Beef conversations

In Wyoming, Wittmann notes that the media has responded favorably to releases, statements and availability for comment on the IARC report.

The Wyoming Beef Council has also been working diligently to invigorate lively conversation related to beef over the past several years while also remaining attentive to the issues and responding as new topics come forward.

“We have been talking about the nutritional value of beef through our social media channels,” Wittmann explains. “We have had really good conversation and engagement on Pinterest and Facebook about the benefits of beef, the taste of beef and giving the consumer permission to love beef and include it in their diet.”

Positive impacts

Wittmann adds that the efforts of the Wyoming Beef Council have netted positive impacts, particularly over the past year.

“Our website traffic over the past year has increased 350 percent,” Wittmann emphasizes. “We are very impressed with that.”

Their focus on the image of a rancher who also consumes the product they produce has helped to drive their website traffic.

“We are focusing on the cowboy and the rancher’s way of life while peppering in messages about nutrition, fun recipes and vibrant, healthy living,” she says. “It seems to be really working for us.”

Checkoff efforts

In the wake of the release of the IARC report, Wittmann emphasizes, “Producers should realize that the beef checkoff has spent millions of dollars in research and decades of time researching our product so we have the facts to counter some of these messages and help consumers not get caught up in the study of the day.”

“This is our checkoff dollars at work,” she says. “We are paving the way for consumers to love our product and help producers make a living.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..