Thoughts on the IARC’s Meat Announcement

The news broke yesterday, and as expected, there was a great deal of hooplah from all sides: Red and Processed meats might cause cancer, according to experts at the International Agency of Research for Cancer (IARC).  Collectively, the animal agriculture industry groaned: this could turn people away from our product. What can we do to make sure that the general population understands IARC’s ruling, and doesn’t head for the hills and proceed to eat kale for the rest of their lives?

First, lets look at the actual ruling itself. You can access the actual release from IARC here. Altogether, it sounds pretty dire if you don’t know what you’re looking at (I’m no medical doctor, so I have no idea what all this means). However, the important takeaways are that red meats (red meat is classified as beef, pork, wild game and bison, fresh, without added preservatives) are classified in Group 2A, and that processed meats (this is a huge group:  from sausages and hot dogs to spam, ham and head cheese, anything which has anything at all added to it) are classified as Group 1. That doesn’t sound so terrible? Right? Right, but what do those groupings actually mean? I think this video below does a pretty succinct job of explaining thousands of pages of statistical reports in a little over 4 minutes. Watch it, and we will continue the discussion below:

So, no we know that even with a group 1 classification, its only more likely that high consumption of processed meats will cause colorectal  cancer IF an individual eats AT LEAST 50 grams of processed meats per day. Additionally, we now understand that a Group 2A classification means that there is a chance that the consumption of (or exposure to) these substances causes cancer. But ultimately there is not enough conclusive evidence to support a Group 1 classification. I hope you’re still with me, because the next part is the most important.

THERE IS INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE FOR THESE CLAIMS, BASED ON THE RESEARCH THE IARC USED.

Unfortunately, most dietary studies for people include a method called self-reporting. Self reporting is used in survey format, and usually is phrased something like:

“In a given week, how many times have you consumed processed meats over the past year?”

  • Less than 3
  • 3-4
  • 4-5
  • more than 5

As you can see, these are far from highly accurate, and as such they create a lot of variation on the results of the study. Therefore, there is a good chance that the numbers the IARC used to reach their conclusions were wrong, or at the very least inaccurate. As a result of knowing this, what should your reaction, as a consumer, be to their announcement?

DO EVERYTHING IN MODERATION.

Running is good for you, but too much running can stress your knees and cause injury. Similarly, meat is good for you: it contains essential amino acids necessary to build and maintain muscle mass as well as key vitamins and minerals, some of which are unavailable in plant-based proteins. Make sense? I hope so. Please do continue to enjoy a hot dog every now and again, or a ham sandwich, or a nice, juicy steak. Just don’t do it three times a day, every day, and twice on Sundays.

Finally, I would encourage you to always do your own research. Remember that nothing stated by the media can be taken at face value, and that even organizations as large and powerful as the WHO and IARC are subject to the limitations of the data available to them. This is a highly contentious issue and there will be a lot of bantering from WHO, IARC, governments lobbyists and the general public. Through it all, it is important to remember that you’re still more likely to die of being hit by a bus than by bacon, and everyone has to die of something.

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Why I Use Antibiotics

On October 20th, 2015, Subway announced via press release and social media that it would start phasing out the use of meat from animals treated with antibiotics. A few days later, after much outcry from the people who actually raise the meat that Subway serves, they updated their announcement for clarity.  There are many blogs so far that I have seen which directly address Subway, (Agriculture Proud is my favorite)  so I wanted to take a moment and clarify why animals receive antibiotics.

Antibiotics are a family of chemicals which have a general negative effect on organisms.  They differ greatly in their chemical make-ups and effective actions (some destroy cell membranes, others interfere with cell hormone regulation- just know that they are designed to kill specific cells). Antibiotics can be administered in a variety of ways, including via injection and orally, just as they are in humans. There does not seem to be much of an issue with either of these two points. Indeed, there is also not much pushback from people when it is stated that antibiotics are used to improve the health of animals which have been infected with a bacterial disease. These diseases are common and expensive to the animal industry, and so they are dealt with accordingly.

Antibiotics are used as a response to illness, rather than as a prevention tool (vaccines fall under the preventative umbrella). In order for antibiotics to be used, an animal has to be ill enough to show clinical signs, such as anorexia, antisocial behaviour, fever, pain due to inflammation and signs such as mucus discharge or coughing. When these symptoms exist, it means that the animal cannot fight the infection effectively without aid, which is where antibiotics come in. The animal is treated, and occasionally retreated, to help the animal beat and recover from the infection. Unless antibiotics are used in these cases, it is likely that the animal could suffer for a prolonged period of time and there is even potential for permanent damage to the animal’s body, or the animal could die. From this standpoint, it is difficult to find an argument against the proper use of antibiotics.

Did you see what I did there? “the PROPER use of antibiotics.” This is the sticking point for many consumers. They challenge that farmers are irresponsible with their use of antibiotics. Farmers don’t treat animals properly, with the right medicines, and so these “superbugs” are created. While it is true that superbugs exist, and that they are a medical concern, it is not true that antibiotic use in animals leads to the creation of superbugs (this paper from the Beef Cattle Research Council further explains this). Further, there are claims that the meat farmers produce is laden with antibiotic residue, which people then consume and can get ill from (remember, antibiotics are used to kill organisms). Again, this is simply untrue. Farmers who treat cattle with antibiotics must adhere to designated withdrawal times. Withdrawal times are different for every antibiotic, and for every species, but a withdrawal time is the period which is necessary for the antibiotic to be fully metabolized by the animal and leave the body (usually this occurs in the liver and kidneys). There are strict penalties for animals which are found at the slaughterplant with antibiotic residue in their carcasses, and so it really is a monitored, well recorded way of preventing antibiotics from reaching the food supply.

Based on these arguments, my family and I will continue to adhere to the withdrawal times that have been established for the medications we administer, and we will continue to help end the illnesses which we observe among our animals. In addition to that, we will continue to eat the beef we produce, so I challenge you: If I will eat it, and it has been treated with antibiotics, why won’t you?