James Werrell

WHO offers a lesson in risk assessment


Looks like bacon lovers will have to either cut way back on the ultimate gift from the pig or play bacon roulette.

In what some are referring to as bacopocolypse, the World Health Organization announced Monday that bacon causes cancer. Unfortunately, the research appears to be sound.

To make matters worse, bacon is not the only meat product to be indicted by this study. The same warning applies to sausage, hot dogs, salami and all processed meats – even ham! Any meat that has been cured, smoked, salted – or, in other words, made to taste better – falls into this category.

In fact, WHO suggests that all red meat might be linked to a higher cancer risk, although not as certainly as processed meat is.

To drive home the dire nature of its warning, WHO places processed meats in the same category as cigarettes, leaving the impression that a BLT is as dangerous as a pack of Marlboros. While that is not intended to be misleading, it can be unless you dive a little deeper into the statistics. It should be noted, for example, that plutonium also turns up in this category.

Smoking remains the most preventable cause of cancer in the world. Smoking causes an estimated 19 percent of all cancers and 86 percent of lung cancers worldwide.

By contrast, WHO says that consumption of processed meat and red meat might cause 3 percent of all cancers, and 21 percent of bowel cancers.

Colorectal cancer, in fact, is the primary focus of this report. The National Cancer Institute estimates that men face about a 5 percent chance of getting colorectal cancer in their lifetimes. For women, it’s 4.5 percent.

Eating a steady diet of bacon and other processed meats raises the risk to almost 6 percent. That should be enough to give people pause before continuing to eat a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit for breakfast every morning.

But we also need to put this warning in perspective. WHO says that the risk arises from eating a 50-gram portion of processed meat daily, which amounts to about two slices of bacon – every day.

Even people who love bacon usually don’t eat it every day. Nor do most of us subsist on a daily diet of hot dogs, pastrami sandwiches, barbecued pork butt and other processed meats.

And even if 100 people were crazy enough to do that, only six of them would get colorectal cancer, according to the odds.

Again, it probably wouldn’t hurt us to eat less processed and red meat. In addition to improving our health, eating fewer animals also would improve the health of the planet.

But this report also is an opportunity to look philosophically at life itself. Life is terminal. Nobody gets out alive.

Among other known carcinogens are sunlight, air pollution and a variety of other substances we come into contact with in our daily routines. And then there are all the other things that might kill us, such as the car driven by someone talking on a cellphone or the giant meteor that could be on a path to destroy the planet.

We need to be sensible about risk assessment. Life without another BLT? Ridiculous! An occasional BLT with thick, smoked bacon, a fresh summer tomato, crispy lettuce and lots of mayo definitely is a risk worth taking.

Americans, in particular, seem to snatch the latest dietary findings and take them to absurd extremes: “From now on we will eat only kale.”

We also seem to stigmatize those who enjoy eating food for pleasure rather than regarding it as medicine. Health-food fanatics might celebrate people who take big risks, such as skiing, rock climbing or riding a bicycle, but look down their noses at anyone who eats a double cheeseburger.

The WHO researchers weren’t specific about the smallest portion of processed meat that poses a hazard or how much, if any, we could consume in a month without much danger. And so, as with many such studies, we come full circle to the most reliable advice of all: Everything in moderation.

Even kale.

James Werrell is editor of The Herald’s opinion page.