Processed meats such as corned beef, bacon, ham and sausages are now ranked alongside cigarettes as a major cause of cancer.
The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) announced that the new classifications means there is now “sufficient” evidence to say the consumption of processed or cured meats can cause cancer, particularly colorectal cancer.
The IARC also found that red meat can “probably” cause cancer, although the evidence it found to support this link is less robust.
Ministry of Health nutritionist Karen Tairea says avoiding processed meats is a challenge for the Cook Islands who are big consumers of processed meat such as canned corned beef and sausages.
Tairea says sausages in particular are very cheap and are a frequent meal choice or fundraiser event for many people.
“This is significant seeing as Cook Islanders love their meat and are big meat eaters. Preferably we should eat more white meat like chicken, fish and turkey.”
The IARC’s experts concluded that each 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 per cent.
“For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” said Dr Kurt Straif, head of the IARC monographs programme.
“In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”
The announcement has also provoked anxiety amongst carnivores and backlash from the meat industry, which blasted the IARC findings as “dramatic and alarmist.”
“What we do know is that avoiding red meat in the diet is not a protective strategy against cancer,” said Robert Pickard, a member of the Meat Advisory Panel and emeritus professor of neurobiology at Cardiff University.
“The top priorities for cancer prevention remain smoking, maintenance of normal body weight and avoidance of high alcohol intakes.”
However, WHO have emphasised that the “Group 1” category only means there is sufficient evidence that these things can lead to cancer. It does not mean everything in this category is equally dangerous or equally likely to cause cancer.
But the writing has been on the wall for ham, bacon and sausages for several years.
The World Cancer Research Fund has long been advising people that processed meat is a cancer hazard.
It advises eating products such as ham, bacon and salami as little as possible and having no more than 500g a week of red meat, including beef, pork and lamb.
Tairea recommends that Cook Islanders limit red meat to 540g a week, as red meat contains proteins and important nutrients including B vitamins, iron and zinc.
Red meat includes beef (including mince), pork, veal, goat, lamb.
Vegetables on the other hand, she says are protective against cancer and people should be eating more of these.
To the people of the Cook Islands, Tairea says by eating a healthy diet, avoiding processed meat, reducing red meat and eating more fruits and vegetables, staying a healthy weight and being active, many cancers could be prevented.