Risk Expert Says Calls to Stop Serving Processed Meats in Schools Should Be Rejected

stier_smWashington, D.C. – National Center for Public Policy Research Risk Analysis Director Jeff Stier has released the following statement regarding the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) classification of processed meats as carcinogens and a call for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to remove such meats from school menus:

The World Health Organization cancer agency alleges that for each 50 grams of processed meats eaten daily, consumers increase their chance of colorectal cancer by 18%. That sounds pretty scary. But even if that were true, and other large studies dispute it, the touted increase in risk is misleading because it is an increase over a low population-wide risk to begin with. There were only 42.4 new cases per 100,000 people, according to the latest federal analysis.

Without this context, it is easy to pay attention to the “18%” number without understanding context. It’s like saying that living near a NASA facility triples your chances of getting hit by an errant space ship. It may be true, but it doesn’t mean much.

IARC did not conclude that moderate consumption of processed meats like hot dogs or bacon causes cancer. Yet, the ironically-named Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) is using the report to call for the USDA to stop serving any processed meats whatsoever because of the alleged cancer risk from unusually high lifetime consumption.

While one should dismiss the PCRM petition as predictable activism from a vegan advocacy group, some at the USDA may be swayed by these non-scientific assertions.

When, in 2009, the group petitioned the USDA to ban processed meat and poultry from school lunches due to alleged cancer risk, the USDA denied the request due to a lack of “consensus documents of the U.S. Government or of the leading world bodies with cancer expertise.” So now, who could blame PCRM for pointing out the IARC findings?

What PCRM and its allies won’t tell you is that the IARC did not find an increased risk of cancer from moderate consumption of processed meats. All sorts of naturally-occurring chemicals from healthy fruits and vegetables in our food could be classified as carcinogens. But that doesn’t mean schools should stop serving them since they do not present a cancer risk at normal levels of consumption.

The USDA should immediately dismiss the PCRM petition and reprimand the group for falsely alleging that moderate consumption of processed meats served in schools poses a cancer threat.

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