The long read: Decades of research proves that chemicals used to induce bacon do induce cancer. So how did the meat industry convince us it was safe?
There was a little coffeehouse I used to go to that did the best bacon sandwiches. They came in a soft and pillowy white bap. The bacon, thick-cut from a local butcher, was midway between crispy and chewy. Ketchup and HP sauce were served in miniature containers with the sandwich, in order to be allowed to dab on the exact amount you liked. That was all there was to it: just bread and bacon and sauce. Eating one of these sandwiches, as I did every few weeks, with a beaker of strong coffee, felt like an uncomplicated pleasure.
And then, all of a sudden, the bacon sandwich stopped being quite so comforting. For a few weeks in October 2015, half the people I knew speak to me the news that eating bacon was now a proved induce of cancer. You couldn’t miss the story: it was splashed big in every newspaper and all over the web. As one columnist wrote in Wired,” Perhaps no two words together are more likely to set the internet aflame than BACON and CANCER .” The BBC website announced, matter-of-factly, that” Processed meat do cause cancer”, while the Sun went with” Banger out of Order” and” Killer in the Kitchen “.
The source of the tale was an announcement from the World Health Organization that” processed meats” were now classified as a group 1 carcinogen, intending scientists were certain that there was ” sufficient” evidence that they caused cancer, particularly colon cancer. The alert utilized not just to British bacon but to Italian salami, Spanish chorizo, German bratwurst and myriad other foods.
Health frightens are ten-a-penny, but this one was very hard to ignore. The WHO announcement came on advice from 22 cancer experts representing 10 countries, who reviewed more than 400 surveys on processed meat covering epidemiological data regarding hundreds of thousands of people. It was now possible to say that” eat less processed meat”, much like” eat more vegetables”, had become one of the very few perfectly incontrovertible pieces of evidence-based diet advice- not simply another high-profile nutrition fad. As every news report highlighted, processed meat was now in a group of 120 show carcinogens, alongside alcohol, asbestos and tobacco- leading to a great many headlines blaring that bacon was as deadly as smoking.
The WHO advised that devouring 50 g of processed meat a day- equivalent to that given to just a couple of rashers of bacon or one hotdog- would create health risks of get bowel cancer by 18% over a lifetime.( Eating larger amounts raises your risk more .) Learning that your own risk of cancer has increased from something like 5% to something like 6% may not be frightening enough to put you off bacon sandwiches for ever. But learning that consumption of processed meat makes an additional 34,000 worldwide cancer fatalities a year is much more chill. According to Cancer Research UK, if no one ate processed or red meat in Britain, there would be 8,800 fewer cases of cancer.( That is four times the number of people killed annually on Britain’s streets .)
The news felt specially shocking because both ham and bacon are quintessentially British meat. Virtually a quarter of the adult population in Britain eat a ham sandwich for lunch on any committed period, according to data from 2012 gathered by researchers Luke Yates and Alan Warde. To many consumers, bacon is not just a meat; it is a repository of childhood memories, a totem of home. Surveys indicate that the smell of frying bacon is one of our favourite smells in the UK, along with cut grass and fresh bread. To be told that bacon had given millions of people cancer was a bit like finding out your grandmother had been secretly scattering arsenic on your morning toast.
Vegetarians might point out that the bacon sandwich should never have been seen as comforting. It is surely no convenience for the swine, most of whom are kept in squalid, cramped situations. But for the rest of us, it was alarming to be told that these beloved meat might be contributing to thousands of needless human deaths. In the weeks following news of the Who are dependent, sales of bacon and sausages fell dramatically. British supermarkets reported a PS3m drop in sales in simply a fortnight. (” It was very detrimental ,” said Kirsty Adams, the product developer for meat at Marks and Spencer .)
But just when it looked as if this may be #Bacongeddon( one of many agonised bacon-related hashtags trending in October 2015 ), a second wave of narratives inundated in. Their message was: panic over. For one thing, the analogy between bacon and smoking was misinforming. Smoking tobacco and eating processed meat are both dangerous, but not on the same scale. To put it in context, around 86% of lung cancers are linked to smoking, whereas it seems that simply 21% of bowel cancers can be attributed to eating processed or cherry-red meat. A few weeks after publishing the report, the WHO issued a clarification insisting it was not telling consumers to stop eating processed meat.
Meanwhile, the meat industry was busily insisting that there was nothing to see here. The North American Meat Institute, an industry hall group, called the report” dramatic and alarmist overreach “. A whole tranche of articles insisted in a commonsense tint that it would be premature and foolish to ditch our meaty fry-ups simply because of a little cancer scare.
Nearly three years on, it feels like business as usual for processed meat. Many of us seem to have got over our initial appreciation of alarm. Sales of bacon in the UK are buoyant, having risen 5 % in the two years up to mid-2 016. When I interviewed a product developer for Sainsbury’s supermarket last year, she said that one of the quickest ways to get British consumers to try a new product now was to add chorizo to it.
And yet the evidence presented relating bacon to cancer is stronger than ever. In January, a new large-scale examine using data from 262,195 British women suggested that ingesting only 9g of bacon a period- less than a rasher- could significantly elevate the risk of developing breast cancer later in life. The study’s lead-in writer, Jill Pell from the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at Glasgow University, told him that while it can be counterproductive to push forward total abstention, the scientific evidence recommends” it would be misleading” for health authorities to set any safe dose for processed meat” other than zero “.
The real scandal of bacon, nonetheless, is that it didn’t have to be anything like so damaging to our health. The part of the narrative we haven’t been told- including by the WHO- is that there were always other ways to fabrication these products that would build them significantly less carcinogenic. The fact that this is so little known is tribute to the power of the meat industry, which has for the past 40 times been engaged in a campaign of cover-ups and misdirection to rival the dirty trick of Big Tobacco.
How do you choose a pack of bacon in a shop, accepting you are a meat eater? First, you opt for either the crispy fat of streaky or the leanness of back. Then you decide between smoked or unsmoked- each version has its passionate champions( I am of the unsmoked persuasion ). Maybe you seek out a packet made from free-range or organic meat, or maybe your budget is squeezed and you search for any bacon on special offering. Either style, before you set the pack in your basket, you have one last appear, to check if the meat is pink enough.
Since we feed with our eyes, the main route we judge the quality of cured meat is pinkness. Yet it is this very colouring that we should be suspicious of, as the French writer Guillaume Coudray explains in a book are presented in France last year called Cochonneries , a word that entails both “piggeries” and “rubbish” or “junk food”. The subtitle is” How Charcuterie Became a Poison “. Cochonneries reads like a crime fiction, in which the processed meat industry is the perpetrator and ordinary customers are the victims.
The pinkness of bacon- or cooked ham, or salami- is a sign that it has been treated with chemicals, more particularly with nitrates and nitrites. It is the use of these substances that is widely believed to be the reason why” processed meat” is still much carcinogenic than unprocessed meat. Coudray argues that we should speak not of” processed meat” but “nitro-meat”.