Why the latest World Health Organization report is not as alarming as you think
By Morgan Levy ‘19
“Processed meat causes cancer? Eat llama instead, says Bolivia’s health ministry.” “Bad Day For Bacon: Processed Meats Cause Cancer, WHO Says.”
Looking at headlines after the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer, you may think that your next plate of eggs is not going to be served with a side of bacon. However, don’t go cold turkey without considering the facts, decoding the rhetoric, and understanding the science accompanying these headlines.
Here are some of the facts. The report stated that eating processed meats can cause colorectal cancer in humans. The IARC now classifies processed meat on its Group 1 list, which also includes tobacco, of substances that show “sufficient evidence” of being carcinogenic.
The problem with these headlines is that they make the risk seem much higher than it actually is. In a statement, Dr Kurt Straif of the IARC explained, “For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal (bowel) cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed.”
Another important point to consider is that this study looked at people who eat multiple servings of processed meats every day. For the vast majority of people, a weekend brunch with a side of sausage is not a daily occurrence.
Furthermore, David Wallinga senior health officer for health and environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council explained, ”Nobody is telling people not to eat meat… What they’re saying is if you eat it, eat less of it and buy it from sources that have produced it better.”
The problem with science in the media today is our inability, as readers, to access the facts easily, and our susceptibility to catchy language. Every other week something else gets labeled a carcinogen, from cell phones to sugar and now bacon.
Today’s media has a flair for the dramatic. Headlines are not necessarily designed to inform, but rather to startle, alarm and keep readers watching. While these tactics keep the media industry alive, they do not ensure the safety of our society.
The intersection of science and the media can be particularly dangerous. Without proper communication, many health-related headlines can be terrifying. While Tyson’s stock did not drop the day this report was released, I am sure many people did not order BLT’s at lunch that day.
While that is not a catastrophic idea in itself, when taken to a greater extreme it becomes a greater issue. In the era of the Internet especially, people feed into the danger people claim much more easily. Because we are more paranoid, we become more gullible which lends itself to a culture where we believe and do not question.
I encourage all of you to be a little more skeptical when you read headlines. Keep asking questions, and do not miss the body of the articles after being alarmed. And also, don’t be afraid to eat the BLT for lunch.