Stakeholders in India are dismissive about a recent World Health Organization report that says consumption of processed meats, like ham and sausage, causes cancer. The report, prepared by the International Agency of Research on Cancer, has caused concern in many countries.
The study, conducted by the International Agency of Research on Cancer, has found that consumption of red meat (or mammal meat) and processed meats like bacon, sausages, is carcinogenic. The report also classifies processed meats as carcinogenic to humans beings (group 1), bunching them in the same category as carcinogens like tobacco and asbestos. The cancer risk associated with the consumption of red meat was not established through direct evidence, but if the association of red meat and colorectal cancer was proven to be causal, data from the same studies suggest that the risk of colorectal cancer could increase by 17% for every 100 gram portion of red meat eaten daily, the report says. The reason these products share the same label is because IARC assesses the strength of the scientific evidence that proves a particular product is carcinogenic, not the cancer risk associated with it.
The report has been drawn after assessing the findings of 800 different studies conducted over the past 20 years. Dieticians have always recommended regulated consumption of processed meat and red meats. In all, 22 experts from WHO have reviewed existing research to give the verdict on red and processed meats and concluded that there is “sufficient evidence” that “eating processed meat causes colorectal cancer”. The report explains that “every 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18%”.
About a week since the study was published, reactions from the industry and even the authorities concerned do not indicate any concern over the findings. In fact, some people linked to the meat business were unaware of the development.
Mohammed Ather, managing director of the Azan group, dismissed the findings as irrelevant. “In the absence of stronger conclusive evidence, this report sounds ridiculous. Moreover, what are the substitutes for the nutrients that red meat provides?” The Azan group exports frozen meat to countries like China, Vietnam and Africa, where, Ather said, a large number of the poor purchase and eat fresh, not processed, meat.
Another exporter of meat to the Gulf countries, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the “hysteria surrounding the (meat) industry”, said, “we will make an informed assessment of the situation after studying the WHO report. For now, I can say that our business will not necessarily be hurt. We have a huge clientele for red meats.”
It is too early to predict consumer reaction to or awareness about the WHO findings. And whether business is hurt due to a slump in meat purchasers can only be determined by “consumer perceptions in the destination countries”, said Aditya Bhattacharjea, dean of the Delhi School of Economics. Yet, the global meat export figures released by the United States Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Services, in October indicate a stellar year for Indian trade for the present. “Global production (of veal and beef) is forecast to rebound 1% higher to 59.2 million tons,” says the report, “Livestock and Poultry: World Markets and Trade”. “Continuing herd expansion will drive production higher for major traders, particularly the United States, India, and Brazil. India continues to expand on growing foreign demand; exports account for 48% of production compared to only 18% for Brazil,” it says.
Meanwhile, repeated attempts to contact the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, empowered to ensure safety of food products imported or manufactured in India, drew no response. Sources at the offices of the food safety commissioners of UP and Andhra Pradesh, the two top meat producing states, were largely unaware of the WHO findings. R.K. Boel, in-charge of the meat division at Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority, said, “I don’t have any information on this (study).”
“For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer due to consumption of processed meat remains small, but the risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” Dr Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs Programme, said. “As a large number of people consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”