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Is beef jerky the next cancer stick?

October 29, 2015 - Andy Flynn
This week: 412

Sept. 15: 420

Difference: -8

There’s a reason processed meats are on my Do Not Eat List, and now I have more motivation to keep it that way. The World Health Organization this week announced that people who eat processed meats and red meat have a better chance of getting cancer.

Does that mean we should stay away from processed meats or red meat entirely? I don’t think so. Even my “Do Not Eat” List is more like a “Don’t Eat This As Often As You Used To” List. Everything in moderation, right?

On Monday, Oct. 26, the International Agency for Research on Cancer — the cancer agency of the World Health Organization — released its evaluation on how the consumption of red meat and processed meat relates to our chances of getting cancer.

Based on the work of 22 experts from 10 countries, they decided to classify processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” based on “sufficient evidence” that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.

Moreover, they classified the consumption of 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, mainly for colorectal cancer but also for pancreatic and prostate cancer.

The main conclusion was that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

“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,” Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs Programme, said in a press release. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

Let’s be clear. These experts did not conduct their own studies, and this is not new information. They examined more than 800 existing studies to come up with this conclusion. The main news here is that the leading health organization on the planet is using its power to get the message across to consumers.

The World Health Organization made a bold statement, which was predictably received with a mixed reaction. Many vegetarians rejoiced. Many meat eaters didn’t blink before ordering a second hot dog at the ball park. And the meat industry put their spin machine into high gear.

What does this mean for public health?

“These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat,” said Dr. Christopher Wild, director of IARC. “At the same time, red meat has nutritional value. Therefore, these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.”

The main shocker of this announcement came in the form of one word: carcinogen. The WHO called processed meat a carcinogen, putting it on the same level as other substances that cause cancer, such as tobacco. That gives this warning a more serious tone, and it will no doubt get some people thinking twice about eating processed meat.

Is beef jerky the new cancer stick?

It’s a good thing Michael Bloomberg is no longer the mayor of New York City. This is the guy who tried to ban oversize soda in the Big Apple because of its link to the obesity epidemic. Under the ban, which was eventually rejected by the New York State Court of Appeals, sugary drinks served at restaurants, movies theaters, stadiums and arenas were limited to 16 ounces. Could you imagine him trying to limit the size of a heaping corned beef or pastrami sandwich at Katz’s Deli? He wouldn’t be safe on the streets.

Other than cancer, the real concern is our government’s potential reaction to the WHO report, which could be used as ammunition for new health policies.

There could be an overzealous politician out there — in a non-meat-producing state — dreaming up a way to increase revenue by taxing processed meat. The media would give it a catchy name, possibly the “pepperoni tax,” and give him a villainous title in the headlines: “Beef jerk strikes again.”

In the past — and in some parts of the world today — processing meat was necessary to preserve it through the long winter months. Using techniques such as smoking, curing and fermentation, preserving meat keeps it safe for consumption while ensuring a needed source of protein during periods when fresh meat is not available. Humans have been doing it for thousands of years.

In today’s modern, refrigerated world, processed meat is no longer needed in many of the industrialized nations, certainly not in most U.S. households. In America, preserving meat has, for the most part, moved from necessity to convenience. We’re looking for the quick way to consume protein: meat sticks, beef jerky, hot dogs, frozen food, canned food and sandwiches from meat purchased at the deli counter.

Processed meat products, however, are much cheaper, thereby making them accessible protein sources for low-income families. In that sense, it is a necessity for many Americans.

We don’t need to eat processed food to survive, yet it is the backbone of the American food industry. Walk into a grocery store, take out all the processed food, and see what’s left. Not much.

It takes time to eat right. Instead of buying roast beef or turkey at the deli counter, you could cook your own roast beef or turkey in the oven and slice it up for sandwiches for your family’s lunches. It’s more healthy, but it takes time. I say it’s time well spent to ensure your family’s health.


Meat Basics

The World Health Organization announced this week that people have a higher risk of cancer by consuming processed meat and red meat. Below are the definitions of those meats.

Processed meat: Processed meat refers to meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation. Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but processed meats may also contain other red meats, poultry, offal, or meat by-products such as blood.

Examples of processed meat include:

-Hot dogs



-Corned beef

-Beef jerky

-Canned meat and meat-based preparations and sauces

Red meat: Red meat refers to all types of mammalian muscle meat, including:









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Blog Photos

Andy King of the Bastey Boys Barbecue Brigade takes pork ribs out of the smoker during the 2014 I Love BBQ & Music Festival in Lake Placid. Pork is considered a red meat, which the World Health Organization said this week could lead to some forms of cancer in the people who eat it. (News photo — Andy Flynn)