Sorry, Bacon: WHO Links Meat and Cancer, Raising Alarm Bells for Brands

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Meat banned graphic parental advisory
The report may not make much of an impression on consumers who already have seen clawbacks of varying degrees on the supposed nutritional and medical dangers of eggs, butter and milkfat in general. But the United Nations health organization has come out with an accusation against processed red meat such as bacon, hot dogs, sausages and other processed meats, calling them carcinogenic and raising fears that eating smoked meat is as bad as smoking tobacco.

Big meat-based brands such as Arby’s, McDonald’s, Oscar Mayer, Krave beef jerky and hundreds of  makers of barbecue sauce (and that’s just in the US) aren’t likely to take kindly to such an assertion. But certainly public digestion of this report has only begun. The cause for alarm: the World Health Organization announced Monday that eating processed meats including hot dogs, sausages and bacon can lead to bowel cancer in humans, and red meat is a likely cause of the disease.

Citing the International Agency for Research on Cancer, WHO placed processed meat in the same “group 1” list of known carcinogens along with tobacco and asbestos, for which there is “sufficient evidence” of cancer links. Red meat per se was placed in a less-certain group of probable carcinogens.

As noted by USA Today, the IARC said it reviewed more than 800 studies that investigated possible links between “a dozen types of cancer with the consumption of red meat or processed meat in many countries and populations with diverse diets. The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion — about 1.75 ounce, or about two strips of bacon — of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.”

IARC director Christopher Wild told the newspaper that the findings support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat, but stressed that red meat has nutritional value. He said governments and international regulatory agencies must balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat “to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.”

Meat industry groups rejected the IARC findings as overly simplistic, and scientists quoted by various media noted that the links between red and processed meat and bowel cancers have been known and studied for some time.

The report comes out simultaneously with a new story in The Atlantic that consists largely of handwringing about how meat producers have done some rent-purchasing in Washington, D.C., over the decades. “The USDA is responsible for both regulating and promoting the [meat] industry,” the magazine said. “No surprise then that this year’s dietary recommendations probably won’t include decreasing meat consumption.”

One of the article’s main points was that the USDA and the US Department of Health & Human Services recently announced, “rejecting the advice of their own expert panel,” that they were not going to include considerations of environmental sustainability in the latest edition of the quintennial Dietary Guidelines for Americans. “Had they decided otherwise,” the magazine opined, they likely would have recommended that people lower their intake of meat, the production of which is widely recognized as a major contributor to climate change.”

But in the category of what’s good for the goose is good for the gander—or, rather, what’s good for the cow is good for the veal calf—this notion of livestock husbandry contributing to global warming through methane emissions also could be applied to WHO. Is it just possible that the fact that the United Nations has adopted an alarmist position about methane and meat consumption influenced WHO’s release of a report that tags red meat as a carcinogen?

In any event, meat-oriented brands, which have been tying themselves lately to the boom in protein interest among American consumers, will have to navigate this issue more carefully in the wake of the United Nations report.

Arby’s, for example, has been doing a lot of meat-heavy advertising in the US lately, and last month introduced a line of sliders which it said already have become big sellers at the fast feeder. In fact, the popular ad campaign, “We Have the Meats,” voiced memorably by Ving Rhames, has been highly responsible for a turnaround in Arby’s business.

The chain even created a tongue-in-cheek telephone “support line” for vegetarians who might be tempted by some of its new meat-based offerings.

CPG consultants told brandchannel that the long-term effects of WHO’s findings on meat brands and products will be indeterminate for a while, in part because American consumers have been confronted lately by turnabouts in the scientific state of knowledge about the desirability of other nutritional bogeymen such as eggs and butter.

“As a consumer, you get a bit beleaguered and bewildered because you want to do the right thing nutritionally, but you don’t now what the right thing is,” said Ken Harris, managing partner of Cadent Consulting. “These [meat] producers aren’t trying to do something that’s bad for human consumption; they’re just not. So the [WHO assertion] will have to be well tested and well vetted before we know the truth, and in the meantime people will be left to their own devices.”

George Young, chairman of Kalypso, a business-consulting firm, told brandchannel that “something like this is bound to cauase some public backlash. [But] almost too much of anything could be bad for you. Ten years ago, bacon was a terrible food. Now it’s a a great food because it’s filled with protein, and fat isn’t as bad as we thought.”

The World Health Organization, meanwhile, has been clarifying the new categorization on its social media outposts including Twitter.

So what’s an Arby’s or other purveyor of meats to do now? Maybe Arby’s could come up with a spot showing Rhames’s character facing off against clipboard-toting WHO officials in lab coats.

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