Federal Government Fumbles Health Regulations

Joseph Perrone
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Posted: Sep 20, 2016 12:01 AM
Federal Government Fumbles Health Regulations

Football season may be back, but officials at the National Toxicology Program (NTP) seem to want to intercept your game time snacks before you have a chance to chow down.

Last week, the federal register revealed that the NTP had formally requested information on the production and consumption of red meat, processed meat, and meat cooked at high temperatures in order to justify adding one (or all) of the three to its 2016 Report on Carcinogens. The move comes after the controversial International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) bombshell last fall labeling processed meat as“definitely” and red meat as “probably” cancer-causing.  

But, the IARC’s multi-tier cancer evaluation doesn’t operate in a way that provides useful information on risk to the public. 

Rather than categorizing increasing risk, as most would believe, the IARC groups items based on the amount of research linking the substance to cancer in humans, not the actual cancer risk the substance may pose. If several sources are confident that a substance is a very mild carcinogen – but a carcinogen nonetheless – it is assigned to Group 1. 

Conversely, if the lack of interest in a subject yields only a single study exploring the cancer-causing potential of a substance which turns out to be dangerously carcinogenic, it will be given a lower rank.

This is an evaluation of hazard (can something cause cancer) rather than risk (does something cause cancer). Reliance on hazard over risk yields questionable results, so that motor oil is assigned the same category of danger (Group 1) as the ionizing radiation of a nuclear blast.

Evidence substantiates both as carcinogenic in some amount, but neglecting to communicate an actual level of risk leaves the narrative half-written. Common sense will tell you that changing the oil in your car doesn’t carry the same consequence as would walking into the smoldering remains of Chernobyl. Yet the two are Group 1 carcinogens—along with bacon and other processed meat.

The IARC’s methodology has proven to be fallible in the past. Just this summer, the agency sheepishly reversed its 25-year-long warning of coffee’s cancer-causing potential. If the IARC can't even keep its own health opinions straight, the NTP certainly shouldn't follow in its misplaced footsteps.

In reality, the actual risk of developing cancer from consuming meat is extremely slim.

The IARC determined that each additional 50 grams of processed meat consumed on a regular, daily basis, equates to an 18 percent increase in the risk of developing colon cancer. As far as cancer goes, an 18 percent increase seems high. But the reason why we don’t see an obvious relationship between eating processed meat and cancer is because that value represents relative risk, not absolute risk.

The National Cancer Institute reports that the average American has a 4.4 percent lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer. According to the IARC's findings, the amount of increased colon cancer risk attributable to eating a hot dog and a half every day for a lifetime is only three quarters of a percent.

A college football player is more than twice as likely to be drafted to the NFL than to develop cancer from a processed meat-heavy diet. And again, that risk represents the expected increase of eating a certain amount of meat every day for the rest of your life—something most people short of hot-dog eating champion Takeru Kobayashi probably won’t do.

The decision to label meat as carcinogenic exposes an unsettling trend of governmental health organizations neglecting the fundamental principle of toxicology: The dose makes the poison.

Though one would hope a federal organization dubbed the “National Toxicology Program” would be capable of taking science-based toxicology into account, lately the NTP has seen fit to dabble in the realm of fantasy. Along with red meat, processed meat, and meat cooked at high temperatures, using your cellphone at night and working the night shift are also currently under investigation for their cancer-causing potential. 

It’s almost as though the Congressional mandate to issue a biennial report has left the NTP grasping for straws to meet its publishing requirement.