Seeing red over the Cancer Council’s meat hypocrisy
The World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research (WCRF/AIRC) get together and publish thick reports every 10 years or so. Scientists from around the world sift through all the studies on what we do that might cause or prevent cancer. The last two reports were in 1997 and 2007, with the latter being over 500 pages with 150 scientific authors.
Forget all those dodgy newspaper reports about the latest study showing that food X causes or prevents cancer Y. The WCRF/AICR has very strict standards about what constitutes evidence. A study using 20 rats might get a newspaper story, but it won’t pass muster with WCRF/AICR.
It’s very rare for official bodies to disagree with the WCRF/AICR findings. Firstly, because they are part of the process, and secondly because the process is both conservative and rigorous.
Because WCRF/AICR looks at all the evidence, rather than - like CSIRO - just picking the studies that back some commercial interests, disagreement from official Government bodies is rare. Except for Cancer Council Australia (CCA).
Since the 2007 WCRF/AICR report, CCA has revised some of its position papers and two stand out: those on alcohol and meat.
Their recently revised position on alcohol was printed in the Medical Journal of Australia and got blanket TV and newspaper coverage a couple of weeks back. It relies heavily on the analysis of WCRF/AICR and explains the terminology:
“Convincing” and “probable” are the two highest levels of evidence set by the WCRF and AICR, which identify a causal relationship. Ordinary people would call the evidence awesome, jaw dropping, sick, overwhelming or heaps cool. But “convincing” is the Everest in the WCRF/AICR lexicon. It’s all there is.
But back in 2009, when the Cancer Council revised its position statement on meat and cancer, it was a different story. There was no run in the Medical Journal and no blanket TV and newspaper coverage. I couldn’t even find a press release on the CCA website.
Sometimes all it takes is a single word to undermine a report’s findings. Here’s the very different way CCA dealt with the WCRF/AICR findings that the evidence is convincing that red and processed meat cause bowel cancer:
“The consumption of red meat and processed meat appears to be convincingly associated with a modest increased risk of colorectal cancer.”
Note the two weasel words in this statement: “appears” and “modest”. The sub-text is clearly that this isn’t a finding you need to worry about. But what exactly is the increase described by CCA as modest?
For alcohol, CCA puts the number of cancers caused annually at around 5,000. This is calculated with a measure called the PAF ... population attributable fraction.
Back in 2008, a little after the WCRF/AICR report, I contacted Professor Graham Giles of Cancer Council Victoria. Giles’ group runs the biggest research cohort of people in Australia whose diet and cancer outcomes are periodically monitored.
Giles replied that the PAF in Australia for bowel cancer and red meat, based on Australian intakes and risk factors derived in Australian research, was 48 per cent. That amounts to about 6,000 new cases of bowel cancer annually caused by red meat.
That’s about 20 percent more than the number caused by alcohol.
Not only has CCA mislead the public, but it has also undermined the bowel cancer screening program. Why should Australians bother with a bowel cancer screening test when Sam Neill has assured them that red meat is is good for them?
But the impacts of CCA duplicity go further. After the blanket publicity given to CCA’s estimation that alcohol causes 5,000 cases of cancer a year, it is unlikely that anybody will run pub crawls to raise funds to fight cancer.
Instead they’ll have BBQs. All sorts of organisations use red and processed meat consumption to raise money to support people with cancer and to support the Cancer Council. The McGrath Foundation, for example, raises money with BBQs. Can you imagine a big sign:
“Sausages cause bowel cancer, don’t just sympathise with your wife’s breast cancer, join her in the same ward. Get your sausage here today!”
The prostate cancer foundation raises money the same way, but is also missing the obvious slogan:
“Avoid prostate cancer by getting bowel cancer first, get your chop here!”
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