Beef industry takes WHO report 'with a grain of salt'

Canada's beef industry is concerned, but not panicking, after the WHO classified processed meats as carcinogens.

'People are not going to stop eating bacon,' says market analyst

The share price of Maple Leaf Foods, Canada's largest purveyor of bacon, barely budged on the markets after the WHO announcement. (Not On Display/Flickr)

"Dramatic and alarmist."

That's the reaction of the North American Meat Institute to the World Health Organization's position that processed meat is a cause of cancer, along with cigarettes, alcohol and asbestos. The WHO said that red meat probably causes cancer as well.

People are not going to stop eating bacon.–Bob Gibson, Octagon Capital

In a statement, the North American Meat Institute went on to say that it felt the WHO "tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome."

That the industry immediately came out swinging indicates it is concerned that consumers will turn away from bacon and steaks, even though the WHO suggests limiting intake, not cutting the meats out of our diets entirely.

The report released this week from the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer said there was enough evidence to rank processed meats as Group 1 carcinogens because of a causal link with bowel cancer.

Red meat, including beef, lamb, and pork, was placed in the less risky Group 2a, which the WHO defines as probably carcinogenic to humans.

The agency's carcinogen categories reflect the quality of scientific evidence, not the level of risk. 

"It's a strong, clear signal from the WHO," said Sylvain Charlebois, a food policy expert at the University of Guelph. "They don't have a reputation as being alarmist; it's hard to see this as a positive for the livestock industry."

Risks not well understood

The Canadian Cattlemen's Association had a more measured response to the WHO classification.

We're not quite sure how this will affect the industry," said Tom Lynch-Staunton, issues manager for the association.

"We are taking it a little bit with a grain of salt. What's important to remember is that we really don't understand what the risk is.

"Here's an example. We know that sunshine is a Group 1 carcinogen, and we know that we need to get sunshine to get proper amounts of Vitamin D, but we also know that overexposure to sunlight for long periods of time can result in skin cancer.

"What the [WHO meat] findings show is that there very well could be a hazard, we don't know what the risk level is. And if you maintain a healthy lifestyle, that could mitigate the risk."
Cattle rancher Les Johnston feeds one of his cows on his ranch in southern Saskatchewan

Les Johnston, a cattle rancher in southern Saskatchewan, said he has a hard time wrapping his head around the idea that a steak could be compared to a cigarette. Johnston is a fourth-generation rancher with 160 breeding female cattle on around 1,200 hectares of grassland.

"I guess it seems that we are inundated with extremes," said Johnston. "Common sense tells you, don't just look at the headline, look behind the headline.

"If we eat a balanced diet, stay away from every extreme that's out there, you're going to live a happy and healthy life."

No Canadian market impact

Maple Leaf Foods is Canada's largest meat processor. Its shares barely budged on the TSX Monday, losing less than a percentage point on a day when the overall index was lower.

"It looks like it's not conclusive," said Bob Gibson, who covers Maple Leaf Foods with Octagon Capital. "I don't think it will really impact them at all. People are not going to stop eating bacon."

Charlebois tends to agree. "They're not asking everyone to stop eating beef or processed meat, but they are encouraging people to consume these products in moderation."

"I don't believe it will have a huge impact on Canadian consumers because they've been eating meat for quite a long time."

Exports could be harmed

Charlebois does believe that the effects may be felt on the export market.

Canada exports $1.9 billion in beef each year and $3.7 billion in pork. Those numbers are expected to grow as emerging markets begin to eat more animal protein.

"Emerging markets are really embracing animal protein these past few years," said Charlebois.

"They're eating more chicken, more pork, more beef. Some of these markets might be compelled to now honour their culinary tradition and stick to vegetable proteins."

With files from Angela Johnston


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