Speaking to a meeting of the European Parliament’s environment, public health and food safety committee, the official said: “Another panel will be looking at the results in the context of a healthy diet.” It would, he said, lead to “suggestions to the public of an average intake” of red and processed meat. The group would be convened “soon” he told MEPs.
It was being established, he said, partly following criticisms of the WHO that it released a statement on the conclusions of an International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) monograph evaluating the potential carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat, without publishing the full background documentation.
This, said the official, was some months away, with researchers re-checking the sources and bibliography of the monograph, which was based on peer-reviewed research papers. The conclusions – that a 50g portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%, and 100g of red meat eaten daily increased the risk by 17% - would however, remain the same, he said.
The official admitted that this staggered publication of data “was a problem” and that the initial release had been “a serious problem of communication”.
In other comments, he indicated that the conclusions about meat had been based on the impact of meat molecules on the human body, and not potential contamination of meat products. Answering criticism from Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) that the peer review study had overly focused on American data, he said the experts had also drawn on European information.
He also dismissed claims that the scientists writing the report had been biased, stressing they were independent and had worked in isolation as a group when developing the monograph.
'Moderate consumption acceptable'
While he was not prejudging the conclusions of the new panel, the official told MEPs that “put in the framework of a healthy diet, moderate consumption of meat is acceptable”. This statement “does not contradict the results of the study”, he said. The official said he had been sent to Brussels to make these comments at the direct request of WHO director general Dr Margaret Chan.
A European Commission official said the EU executive was waiting for the release of the full monograph before assessing its conclusions and deciding whether to recommend policy changes within the EU.
MEPs on the committee were divided on whether the WHO recommendations were negative or positive. German green MEP Stefan Eck said: “Eating too much meat is bad for your health.” And Italian Christian Democrat MEP Alberto Cirio accused the WHO of simplifying a complex issue with its conclusions: “Carcinogenic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – that approach is completely wrong footed”, he told the committee.
Italian centre-right MEP Piernicola Pedicini called for more information from the WHO: “We need to know what substances we need to eat to have that kind of risk [as mentioned in the monograph],” he told the committee.