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Leading cancer charity backs decision to brand processed meats as carcinogenic

Carcinogenic: There is "substantial evidence" for a link between meat-eating and bowel cancer
Carcinogenic: There is "substantial evidence" for a link between meat-eating and bowel cancer

Britain's leading cancer charity has backed a decision by the World Health Organisation to brand processed meat products carcinogenic.

Professor Tim Key, from Cancer Research UK, said there was "substantial evidence" for a link between meat-eating and bowel cancer.

But he stressed: "Eating a bacon bap every once in a while isn't going to do much harm - having a healthy diet is all about moderation."

Those who consumed a lot of red and processed meat may want to consider cutting down, he said.

"You could try having fish for your dinner rather than sausages, or choosing to have a bean salad for lunch over a BLT," added Prof Key.

He pointed out that red and processed meat caused fewer cases of cancer than some other lifestyle factors.

The biggest risk was smoking, which was responsible for more than a quarter of cancer deaths in the UK.

Nutrition expert Dr Ian Johnson, from the Institute of Food Research, reacted cautiously to the WHO statement.

The organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said processed meat was definitely and red meat probably a cause of cancer.

Dr Johnson said: "It is important to emphasise however that this classification reflects the strength of the evidence for an effect, not the actual size of the risk.

"Meat consumption is probably one of many factors contributing to the high rates of bowel cancer seen in America, Western Europe and Australia, but the mechanism is poorly understood, and the effect is much smaller than, for example, that of cigarette smoking on the risk of lung cancer.

"It is also worth noting that there is little or no evidence that vegetarians in the UK have a lower risk of bowel cancer than meat-eaters."

Professor Robert Pickard, from the Meat Advisory Panel - which is funded by British meat producers via the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, denied that eating meat caused cancer and said comparing red meat consumption to smoking was "ridiculous".

He added: "Looking at the report itself, I am very surprised by IARC's strong conclusion on categorising processed red meat as definitely and red meat as being probably carcinogenic to humans given the lack of consensus within the scientific community and the very weak evidence regarding the causal relationship between red meat and cancer.

"Avoiding red meat in the diet is not a protective strategy against cancer. The top priorities for cancer prevention remain smoking cessation, maintenance of normal body weight and avoidance of high alcohol intakes.

"Red meat has a valuable role within a healthy, balanced diet thanks to its high protein content and rich nutritional composition."

Environmental group Friends of the Earth's senior food campaigner Clare Oxborrow said: "This should be a wake-up call that our diets urgently need to change.

"Evidence shows that high meat diets not only harm our health, they damage our environment too.

"Experts have warned that unless we eat less meat globally, we will fail to meet our climate change targets."