What is the Impact of IARC Classifying Processed Meat as Group 1 Carcinogen?

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November 6, 2015James LeeBlog

On 26 October 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), published its evaluation of the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. The IARC Monographs Programme has classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A). Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1). This evaluation will be included in Volume 114 of the IARC Monographs.

Basis of Carcinogen Classification

The IARC Monographs Programme has classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect. This association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but there were also associations for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.

Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer. The IARC experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

The IARC Working Group reviewed more than 800 studies that examined associations of more than a dozen types of cancer with the consumption of red meat or processed meat in many countries and populations with diverse diets. According to IARC, red meat refers to all types of mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat. Processed meat refers to meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or preservation. Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but may also contain other red meats, poultry, offal, or meat by-products such as blood.

Business Impact

It is unclear how this new classification will impact the consumer demand for red meat or processed meat, but IARC's classification of processed meat may potentially lead to labeling requirements in different jurisdictions, such as California Proposition 65. Under the Labor Code mechanism, certain substances identified by IARC must be listed as “known to cause cancer” under Proposition 65. Section 25904 of Proposition 65 states that "a chemical or substance shall be included on the list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer if it is . . . classified by the IARC in its IARC Monographs series . . . or in its list of Agents Classified by the IARC Monographs, as: (1) Carcinogenic to humans (Group 1)." If processed meat makes the list, the processed meat industry and related retailers (e.g., hot dog stands, ball parks, grocery stores selling bacon and hot dogs, and movie theaters selling hot dogs) will likely be subject to Proposition 65 enforcement lawsuits.

Under the U.S. OSHA Hazard Communication Standard, chemical products being classified as carcinogenic by IARC triggers SDS and labeling requirements. Consumption of processed meat is unlikely to be a workplace function, but there may be instances in which employers may have to consider providing GHS format labeling and SDS for meat products in different jurisdictions (e.g., the work duty involves eating and tasting processed meat).

The group 1 classification also results in a misguided consumer perception: the public may view eating bacon, beef jerky or hot dog as hazardous as smoking tobacco or breathing in asbestos. This is a dangerous oversimplification, as processed meat can be part of a healthy diet, as opposed to smoking tobacco or breathing in asbestos. Unfortunately, whether it is misguided or not, public perception can lead to creation of new laws and policy decisions.

For more information, IARC’s announcement can be found at: http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf

Written by James C. Lee - Sr. Regulatory Analyst for North America, 3E Company