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The Globe and Mail

The WHO's clumsy decision on bacon sows unneeded confusion

Bacon is fried up in a pan in a kitchen in this photo illustration in Golden, Colorado, October 26, 2015.

Rick Wilking/Reuters

What a drag to wake up on a Monday morning and learn that the bacon frying in your pan has been added to a list of known carcinogens that includes tobacco and plutonium. It's not a great way to start the week, but before anyone laments that people who eat processed meats are about to be turned into social pariahs and forced into their own sections at airports and restaurants, let's get something straight: This isn't new or particularly alarming.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, spends its time figuring out which "agents, mixtures and exposures" are carcinogenic. On Monday, it announced that there is "sufficient evidence" to show that the consumption of processed meats causes colorectal cancer. As such, processed meats – hot dogs, bacon, hams, sausages, pastrami and so on – were added to the IARC's Group 1 carcinogen list.

Bacon and hot dogs are now on the same list of carcinogenic hazards as oral contraceptives, asbestos, alcoholic beverages and roofing tar, not to mention tobacco and atomic warheads. But it's important to remember that IARC only identifies hazards. What its list doesn't indicate is the relative risk of each item on it.

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So while bacon is listed, it is not nearly as dangerous as a cigarette. Tobacco causes one million cancer deaths globally every year, and 63 per cent of all lung cancer deaths are caused by tobacco, according to WHO figures. In comparison, processed meats cause 34,000 colorectal cancer deaths a year – about one-20th of all colorectal cancer deaths.

What's more, health officials have known for years of the link between various diseases and processed meats and red meats – the latter of which the IARC added to its list of "probable" carcinogens on Monday, where they joined a popular South American hot beverage called maté, ultraviolet radiation and working the night shift.

Health officials, Canada's included, have long been advising people to limit their intake of red meat and processed meats, and to focus on balanced diets that include lots of vegetables, nuts and fruits. It's not as if we are suddenly being awoken to a latent danger. The IARC's poorly explained decision is at best a reminder that moderation, as in all things dietary, is the best course.

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