The World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations’ public health arm, issued a report on October 26, 2015, based on research performed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), linking cancer to consumption of red meat and processed meat. In the report, 22 world health experts from 10 countries confirmed that consumption of processed meats will raise the risk of colon and stomach cancer.

Although the American Cancer Society has been warning Americans for decades to avoid eating too much red meat and processed meat, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require that the labels on packaging for food warn consumers of the suspicion that cancer is linked to the consumption of red meat. In contrast, the IARC has provided specific warnings that the consumption of red meat and processed meat causes cancer risks to humans. The IARC report states that it has been determined that consumption of processed meats (Group 2A of the Study) such as hotdogs, ham, sausages, corned beef and meat-based sauces “causes colorectal cancer,” while eating red meat such as beef, veal, pork, lamb and goat (Group 1) is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

The experts concluded that “each 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.”  More information about the study and why the study was done is available on the IARC media center and Q&A page.

The FDA guidelines do not require warnings about risks in eating meat or that consumers be told about the use of GMOs (genetically modified/engineered foods/organisms) or foods that contain GMOs. Many states have already passed laws requiring all ingredients in food to be listed on the label, including GMOs. Other states have legislation pending, such as a bill introduced by Senator Daylin Leach (D-PA) concerning warning consumers about what GMOs are in their foods. Connecticut was one of the first states to pass legislation requiring such labeling, as covered in a post to Wilson Elser’s Product Liability Advocate.

Today, federal law does not require such labeling, but if a federal bill passed in the House on July 23, 2015, is passed in the Senate, it will require labeling of foods produced from genetically engineered plants (H.R. 1599 Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, sponsored by Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS)).

It will be interesting to see whether state or federal legislation is enacted in response to the IARC study on the link between consumption of red meat or processed meats and cancer. Given that there already have been lawsuits filed concerning the use of GMOs in food, it could be only a matter of time before the meat industry is drawn into suits based on the IARC study.

To the extent the meat industry is supplying feed to its livestock that contains GMOs, it may be facing a multitude of challenges and should prepare itself to properly address these issues before it becomes too late.

By extension, the food and beverage industry, grocers and anyone in the chain of distribution for these products should contemplate how they can avoid potential liability given the continuing trends with regard to GMOs and the growing suspicion that the consumption of meat is linked to cancer.