Opinion: What WHO's Findings on Carcinogens in Meat Really Mean

November 3, 2015

What WHO's Findings on Meat and Cancer Really MeansBy now, most of us have heard about the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recent report, which cites a strong correlation between processed meat and (possibly) red meat and colorectal cancer in humans. Following the release of this finding, there has been public outcry from all sides of the issue. From members of the meat industry, who rejected the report as “alarmist overreach”, to animal rights activists, who falsely presented the research to suggest that processed meat is as bad as tobacco smoke (semantics!), there seems to be no shortage of opinions on the matter. And I’m about to offer another.

It always strikes me as curious when reports like this gain so much attention. Of course, as a vegan of 5 years, I’m well aware of the meat-cancer nexus, which is bolstered by numerous studies. In some ways, though, I know I live in a vacuum, so distanced from the standard American diet (SAD) that I often forget that not everyone is well-versed in the health (and ethical) implications of an omnivorous diet. So perhaps such research will persuade less informed people to reconsider the place of animals within their diet. So yes, there’s a part of me that’s grateful for the report, which could fundamentally change how Americans view meat.

At the same time, this conclusion seems far too simplistic for something as complicated as the politics of meat. Just hours after its press release, WHO clarified its controversial recommendation, maintaining that the organization is not suggesting that Americans forgo meat completely, but rather that they limit their consumption. (One wonders whether this sudden shift came as a result of the pressure and influence from meat lobbyists.) Additionally, the report did not evaluate the cancer risks of chicken and fish, which will probably lead to their increased production and sale, something which has already been on the rise with poultry, salmon, and other types of fish now considered “lean” and health-promoting.

With all these factors considered, how might these findings impact human health and animal suffering? Here’s what I think: the WHO’s findings probably impacted those veg-curious folks who haven’t *quite* made the transition to a meat-free diet, but I’m reluctant to say that the data is persuasive on a macro scale. Unfortunately, ours is a world that’s run by powerful interests–interests that have the influence and the resources to communicate whatever message they want, even if it’s to the detriment of others. So while WHO has established a causality between meat and cancer, there are plenty of loopholes and ways to work around the evidence.

All this is not to be pessimistic about how this study might aid the movement. When it comes to animal rights, though, let’s not forget that there is always more work to be done. We can celebrate and share on Facebook and Twitter, but we shouldn’t treat these findings as the be-all-end-all. Let’s not lose sight of the ultimate goal, which is to end animal suffering. Instead, we can add this to a growing body of evidence that supports a meatless diet, and let it guide us to more scientific breakthroughs.

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Photo: Edsel Little via Flickr

Contributing Editor Molly Lansdowne lives in Boston, Massachusetts. In her free time, she enjoys writing, practicing yoga, and traveling around New England. Follow Molly on Pinterest @bostonvegan and Instagram @molly_lansdowne.


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