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Red meat and cancer, is there really any link?

A cancer specialist now says that findings by a World Health Organisation body that red and processed meat can cause cancer need to be questioned, especially in Africa.

Dr Catherine Nyongesa, an oncologist at the Kenyatta National Hospital, says that although the international health agency had raised a red flag on meat, the product does not feature in the list of top 10 causes of cancer.

“There is no sufficient evidence to condemn red meat,” Dr Nyongesa says.

She said that before red meat is entirely categorised among other substances and exposures that can lead to cancer such as tobacco and alcohol, more research should be done.

“So far, we have not seen any link between meat and cancer in this country. Therefore, I think that the research that was released is wanting and scientists need to carry out local research,” she says.

Last week, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, warned that processed meats such as bacon, sausages and ham can cause cancer.

In its statement, the agency said that there was enough evidence to rank processed meat in the same category as asbestos, alcohol, arsenic and tobacco.

The agency also said that there was evidence that eating a lot of red meat (beef, lamb and pork) could expose one to cancers of the colon, pancreas and even prostate.

“After thoroughly reviewing the accumulated scientific literature, 22 experts classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans,” the research centre said on Monday.

This statement sent the world into a frenzy.


But Dr Nyongesa says that the warning may not really be applicable to Africa where some communities whose staple food is red meat have not recorded an increase in cancer cases.

“The Maasai practically survives on meat yet we have not seen an upsurge of colon cancer,” says Dr Nyongesa.

And so do many meat lovers.

Robison Ndung’u says that despite the gloomy news, he will still have meat as tender and juicy as he likes it.

But Martin Njeru, who enjoys a plate of beef stew every Saturday, is taking the report seriously.

“This definitely gives me shivers especially after seeing a close friend succumb to cancer,” he says.

Although he says that he will no longer eat processed meat, Mr Njeru, like Dr Nyongesa, says that red meat is a necessary evil.

“Right now there is a lot of anxiety but you’ll see people having meat. Personally, it’s the norm in my house but I try to avoid eating it for dinner,” he said.

Companies dealing in meat processing have weighed in. They argue that the scientific evidence does not support a causal relationship between red meat or processed meat and cancer.

According to James Taylor, the managing director of Farmers Choice, a producer of processed meat in Kenya, the WHO study heavily focuses on the Western countries and not Africa.

“The World Health Organisation  is referring to the American and European red meat industry, which is very different to that of Kenya,” he says.


In an interview with Citizen TV on Tuesday, Mr Taylor said the reason the findings do not affect Kenya was because “our beef is more or less organic being grass fed and our pork is home bred”.

Mr Taylor says that unlike other parts of the world where chemicals are used in meat processing, the local industry relies on traditional methods such as smokers.

However, Dr Nyongesa says that the findings should not be ignored altogether.

“The warning is meant to create awareness of the dangers of eating lots of red and processed meat, which mainly applies to the developed world,” says Dr Nyongesa.

The findings stated that the risk of developing colon cancer is linked to the amount of meat consumed, underlining the advice of nutrition experts who preach moderation.

The research centre says that a 50-gramme portion of processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 per cent.

The 50 grammes is about two or three slices of bacon. And for Gladys Mugambi, a government nutritionist, daily intake of this will increase your chances of getting cancer.

Not because bacon in itself is bad, but because of the additives (nitrates and phosphates) used to lengthen the shelf life and tenderise the meat.

“When you continuously consume these bacons, ham and sausages, you are definitely exposing yourself,” she says.
For red meat, however, Ms Mugambi says that the principle to containing the risk factors is eating in moderation.

So what in the world is there left to eat for you to stay healthy? Nutritionists say it’s easy: Eat more like a Greek and finish that plate of veggies.