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Food industry plays down WHO processed meat cancer claims

Following the news that the World Health Organisation (WHO) will now classify processed meat as a carcinogen, the food industry in the UK has down-played the claims, insisting it forms an important part of a balanced diet.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is the arm of the WHO that gives recommendations based on cancer risk, yesterday (26 October) released the report that said processed meat, such as hot dogs and bacon, causes cancer and red meat may do so as well.

So far brands whose businesses rely on selling such meat, including McDonalds and Burger King have remained noticeably quiet, choosing not to address the claims immediately. (The Drum has reached out to both for comment).

However, Pinar Hosafci, senior food analyst at Euromonitor International told The Drum that meat-oriented businesses will need to defend their brands, at least in the short term with the emphasis likely to be on the benefits of meat consumption.

“They are also likely to include a greater variety of less processed products in their portfolio. This is already happening as seen by Hormel Foods’ acquisition of Applegate Farms, which sells organic meats, and doesn't use antibiotics, hormones, or chemical preservatives.”

In a statement released to The Drum, Maureen Strong, nutrition manager at the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), which represents the meat industry in the UK, said the risk from processed meat still remains small.

“IARC isn’t saying eating red and processed meat as part of a balanced diet causes cancer: no single food causes cancer,” she said. “Nor is it saying it’s as dangerous as smoking, which Cancer Research UK has pointed out. IARC itself has said that the risk from processed meat remains small.

“Red and processed meat plays an important role in a balanced diet, providing protein, iron, zinc and B vitamins. There’s no evidence that removing meat from your diet protects against cancer.”

While this is the first time the WHO has classified processed meat in the same cancer-causing category as smoking and asbestos, research in to the subject is nothing new. The UK government looked at the same evidence in 2010 and recommended that people eat no more than 70g of red and processed meat a day, an amount that the majority of us eating anyway, according to Strong.

“The government has already said that this advice is not changing. IARC’s findings suggest that eating 50g of processed meat brings a small increase in risk,” she continued. “However average consumption in the UK is just 17g per day. People would need to eat three times their current levels to increase their risk.”

While it remains to be seen whether the news will impart marketing and advertising strategies for the likes of McDonald’s et al going forward, it is unlikely to affect brands on the flipside such as meat-free alternative Quorn who said its current strategy around highlighting the taste of its products has led to a rise in non-vegetarian consumers now accounting for 75 per cent of its 14 million strong customer base.

“While today’s news provides yet more compelling reasons to eat less meat, it will have little or no impact on future marketing activity as we continue to focus on shouting about what we do best – namely creating great tasting meat alternative products that are taking off all over the world,” a Quorn spokesman told The Drum.

Outside the meat-led business overall brand awareness in processed meat is already very low: Globally, 28 per cent of all processed red meat sales come from private label and in Western Europe private label players command almost half the market, according to Hosafci.

“Processed meat brands are already struggling to communicate their added value to consumers and WHO’s recent study is certainly not going to make their job easier,” he added.

“Meat associations are already alarmed with Italy’s Parma Ham Consortium telling the press today that Parma Ham is not a processed meat and shouldn’t be treated as such. We are likely to face similar backlash from other industry bodies across the world.”

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