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WASHINGTON — Bacon, hot dogs and other processed meats cause cancer, and consumption of red meat likely contributes to the deadly disease, the World Health Organization said Monday in a report that was quickly pilloried by meat groups and producers.

The determination by the WHO’s International Agency on Research on Cancer, the latest group to criticize the meat industry, was reached by 22 researchers who reviewed more than 800 studies over several years that looked at the correlation between meat and cancer.

While the international agency did not provide recommendations on how much meat is too dangerous, it said risks of getting cancer increased as more processed and red meat was eaten.

Every additional 50 grams of processed meat eaten each day — about two strips of bacon or one hot dog — increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. Eating 100 grams of red meat daily resulted in a 17 percent jump.

“These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit the intake of meat,” said Dr. Christopher Wild, director of the International Agency on Research on Cancer. He added that red meat has “nutritional value” and said governments and regulatory agencies need to balance the risks of eating red and processed meat to “provide the best possible dietary recommendations.”

The concerns about meat are particularly troubling in Iowa, the nation's leading pork producer and celebrant of events such as Bacon Fest and gigantic pork tenderloin sandwiches.

The North American Meat Institute said the conclusion reached by the WHO panel “defies both common sense and numerous studies” that show no correlation between meat and cancer and highlight the health benefits of meat as part of a balanced diet.

Hot dogs, bacon, processed meats linked to cancer
Run for your life: Hot dogs linked to cancer

“They (International Agency on Research on Cancer) tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome,” said Betsy Booren, vice president of scientific affairs with the meat group.

The meat industry has taken some hits, criticized in recent years for its impact on the environment and public health, its treatment of animals and for antibiotic use.

Public consumption of pork has been stable the past two decades, with the average person eating about 44 pounds in 2013, according to industry and Department of Agriculture data. Beef has been trending downward since the 1970s, with per capita consumption at 54 pounds, compared with an all-time high of 89 pounds in 1976.

Ruth MacDonald, who leads Iowa State University’s food science and human nutrition department, said the WHO agency’s findings would spur further discussion about how much meat should be consumed.

“This is not a simple yes or no answer when it comes to dietary factors and cancer risk,“ MacDonald said. “I don’t think I would send out a message that we should stop eating meat. It’s only one piece of evidence, and other studies have shown looking at the same data that the risks are very small.”

The American Cancer Society has supported a diet that limits processed meat and red meat in favor of one high in vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

It has not said meat causes cancer. Its guidelines recommend consumers select fish, poultry or beans, instead of red and processed meat.

In its dietary guidelines, the federal government has noted that those meats, along with other foods and drinks, “are associated with a greater risk” of certain cancers.

"(The WHO) report has already provoked new hysteria from the meat industry and is likely to stir up its allies in Congress," said Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who praised the report. "They will follow the playbook of all industries that feel they are under attack … and shout from the rooftops that the science is in doubt."

Livestock producers and retailers said the latest salvo was unlikely to hurt their businesses or scare away consumers.

Doug Boland, who has beef cows in Williamsburg, Iowa, said the WHO report “sounds like someone with an agenda,” and noted the need to consume foods in moderation.

“I’ve eaten bacon my whole life, and I’m not going to back off now,” he said. “Some people, no matter what you eat or what you are exposed to, it’s going to cause cancer.”

Darin Hill, who oversees meat purchases for Sunshine Foods in Iowa and neighboring states, said he didn't think it would hurt meat consumption.

"I don’t think Midwesterners put a lot of stock in these studies and tests,” he said.

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