The politics of processed meat

A delicatessen selling meat products

Our Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Rebecca Taylor, delves into the politics of processed meat and the importance of reducing our processed meat consumption to reduce cancer risk.

A fry-up for breakfast, currywurst, quiche Lorraine and spaghetti carbonara are just some of the dishes which you might not have realised contain processed meat. Dishes containing processed meat often form part of a country’s culinary heritage and can have a special place in people’s hearts. Processed meat is meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding artificial preservatives to it.

Through our Global Cancer Update Programme, World Cancer Research Fund International has analysed evidence from across the world on the links between diet, weight, physical activity and cancer. This enables us to develop Cancer Prevention Recommendations, which are strongly evidence-based. Our Cancer Prevention Recommendation for processed meat is “eat little if any”.

Research shows that processed meat increases your risk of developing cancer, with the evidence strongest for colorectal cancer, but this is not always understood by the public. For those who consume processed meat frequently, the risk of colorectal cancer increases by 16% for every 50g of processed meat per day, compared with those who don’t eat it. 50g is about 3 rashers of bacon, 2 slices of ham or 1 hot dog.

What policies are in place around processed meat?

World Cancer Research Fund International promotes policies that enable people to follow our Cancer Prevention Recommendations. This leads us to ask ourselves what policies will make it easier for people to avoid processed meat in their diet? How can we promote this without being accused of “nanny state-ism” or taking away people’s choices?

First, there are a country’s national nutritional guidelines aimed at the public. Questions that should be asked include: do guidelines highlight the risk of cancer due to consuming processed meat? Do such guidelines advise people to eat little or no processed meat, for example in France, where the advice is to eat no more than 150g of processed meat per week? If not, changes are needed to include accurate information on processed meat.

Guidelines on school meals and food offered in other public institutions such as hospitals, which are mainly voluntary, set standards that food should meet, often including maximum levels of fat, salt and sugar. For example, Lithuania mandates levels of salt and sugar permitted in hospital food. As processed meat can contain unhealthy levels of both fat and salt, it can be targeted, albeit indirectly, by such policies. There are some guidelines that specifically target processed food: in Brazil, food sold or served within Ministry of Health facilities requires minimal use of processed food, including processed meat.

Could meat taxes help?

Meat taxes, which are currently being discussed in Germany and the Netherlands, are focused on other issues such as animal welfare and climate change rather than health. If implemented, they could have a secondary effect of reducing processed meat consumption – but direct policies are likely to be more effective.

Marketing restrictions and other fiscal measures could also cut processed meat consumption. But there are few marketing restrictions in place that target highly processed food, including processed meat. Brazil, which has banned advertising of highly processed foods within Ministry of Health premises, is a rare example.

In the UK, junk food marketing restrictions – due to come into effect next year after a much-criticised delay – could also inadvertently cut processed meat consumption. The restrictions will prevent online and TV advertising of food that is high in salt, sugar or fat before 9pm to help tackle childhood obesity – and so processed meat, which is frequently high in salt and fat, would be covered.

Fiscal measures to promote healthy diets and discourage unhealthy food can be effective – as shown in policies that target sugary drinks – but such policies targeting processed meat don’t yet exist.

For further detail on the policies mentioned in this blog, explore our NOURISHING database of nutrition-related policy actions.

Sharing the evidence

In the absence of policies aimed at reducing processed meat consumption in most countries, it falls to us as a cancer prevention organisation to raise public awareness of the risks of eating processed meat, and what can be done to reduce them. Our websites and other information materials (in the UK, US and Netherlands) provide the public with scientifically accurate understandable information on the cancer risks of processed meat and the evidence behind them.

For Cancer Prevention Awareness Week 2023, World Cancer Research Fund in the UK raised awareness of the links between processed meat and colorectal cancer. The campaign involved local and national media, sharing the results of a survey that showing nearly 6 out of 10 people in the UK do not know that colorectal cancer can be a consequence of eating processed meat.

The campaign encouraged people to reduce their consumption by doing the Great British Sarnie Swap and trying a sandwich without processed meat. The campaign provided many cost-conscious suggestions for alternative fillings such as cheese, tuna, eggs, chicken and houmous.

What can be done on the policy front?

While there are a range of policy measures that can support people to reduce or replace processed meat in their diet, as outlined above, many are not yet widely introduced. There is definitely scope for action from national governments, including in relation to marketing restrictions and fiscal measures.

It is important to ensure that such policies are targeted health measures with clear aims and evidence that they have the intended impact. It is also necessary to clearly distinguish such policies from other measures that do not target health, for example meat taxes to improve animal welfare.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently conducted a consultation on fiscal policies to support healthy diets which makes 3 recommendations of measures countries can introduce. This includes targeting foods “inconsistent with a healthy diet”; in particular those that are “high in saturated fatty acids, trans-fatty acids, free sugars and/or salt, usually highly processed” – this would cover some processed meat products.

We responded to the WHO consultation saying we believe that any fiscal measures applied to such food products should be accompanied by measures to improve the availability and affordability of healthy foods. This could include measures such as scrapping VAT on fruit and vegetables, as is being considered in the Netherlands.

Our goal is to reduce the number of people developing a preventable cancer; diet, including reducing consumption of processed meat, is one aspect of that. Through increasing the public’s understanding of the links between processed meat and colorectal cancer, and pressuring governments to adopt effective policies that positively shape the food and retail environment, this goal can be achieved.