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Cancer causers? Meat lovers shrug at warning from WHO

Ben Schmitt
| Monday, Oct. 26, 2015, 11:29 p.m.
Timmy Mills holds up sausage at Parma Sausage in the Strip District on Monday, Oct. 26, 2015.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Timmy Mills holds up sausage at Parma Sausage in the Strip District on Monday, Oct. 26, 2015.
Sicilian sausage at Parma Sausage in the Strip District on Monday, Oct. 26, 2015.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Sicilian sausage at Parma Sausage in the Strip District on Monday, Oct. 26, 2015.
Hot sausage at Parma Sausage in the Strip District on Monday, Oct. 26, 2015.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Hot sausage at Parma Sausage in the Strip District on Monday, Oct. 26, 2015.

Monday turned into an unappetizing day for meat lovers as the World Health Organization placed bacon, ham, sausage and some cold cuts in the same cancer-causing category as tobacco, alcohol, asbestos and arsenic.

Chris Wyatt, general manager of Parma Sausage Products in the Strip District, took the news in stride.

“Each week there's another study about something that causes cancer,” he said. “Eating too much of one thing is going to give you health problems — simple as that.”

The report by WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer categorized processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans,” noting links to colon cancer. Additionally, the agency said red meat was “probably carcinogenic to humans,” with links to colon, pancreatic and prostate cancers.

Despite the headlines and Internet explosion caused by the report, experts said there have long been studies linking meat eaters and cancer. Studies have warned that some chemicals used to cure meat are converted by the body into cancer-causing compounds.

“It's an old story, the latest iteration of the same thing,” said Dr. Gene Finley, deputy director of medical oncology for Allegheny Health Network. “But meat is mighty tasty. I struggle with it every day myself. The doctors are so sick of saying it, we stop saying it.”

Finley said there's no doubt that eating too much processed meat and red meat is harmful.

“People know this stuff, but they have a really hard time implementing it because we live in such a toxic food environment,” he said. “Oh, how I love bacon myself.”

The agency, which coordinates international health within the United Nations, weighed more than 800 studies that investigated possible connections between a dozen types of cancer with the consumption of red meat or processed meat in a range of countries and populations with diverse diets.

The agency said the risk grows with the amount of processed meat consumed. Its experts concluded that each 50-gram portion — or just under three strips of bacon — of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

Thomas Kensler, professor of pharmacology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said people should not liken a corned beef sandwich to a pack-a-day cigarette habit.

“This doesn't mean you can't eat bacon anymore or go to the ballpark and enjoy a hot dog,” he said. “Moderation should be the message before and after this report. Smoking trumps everything in terms of being a driver of risk.”

At Franktuary, a hot dog haven with locations in Lawrenceville and Downtown, co-founder Megan Lindsey echoed the moderation theme.

“We wouldn't suggest to anyone that they eat a hot dog for every meal every day of the week,” Lindsey said. “But if you want to enjoy the food you like on occasion, then treat yourself.”

She said standard Franktuary dogs come from grass-fed beef and don't contain as many preservatives as cheaper brands.

“If you want to eat a cheaper hot dog, you'll see a list of ingredients as long as your arm,” she said. “They are very processed and have chemical-sounding names. Our basic frank has very few ingredients.”

Gary Gigliotti, owner of Deli on Butler Street in Lawrenceville, said the report did not appear to take into account the freshness of deli meat. For example, he said his deli uses only Boar's Head meats, which are fresher and contain less preservatives than other cold cuts.

“I don't think this study concerns us,” he said. “We're serving high-quality food.”

Franktuary co-founder Tim Tobitsch offered this assessment on WHO's report: “The biggest problem I have with studies like this is that people lose track of the fact that living leads to death. This is true in the micro sense in that everyday we must consume things that were once living to temporarily sustain our own lives, and in the macro sense in that those of us who eat bacon and those of us who don't are still going to die.”

Ben Schmitt is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or bschmitt@tribweb.com.

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