For more than a generation, meat has been linked to a variety of ailments. But not all meat is equally risky, and it’s been clear for some time that cured meats like bacon, ham, and sausage carry far greater health risks than other types of meat. It’s never been terribly difficult to imagine why, since if you lay some baloney slices on your car overnight it’ll eat through the paint by morning—so just imagine what the stuff does to your digestive tract when you eat it!
For decades now, studies have revealed strong connections between red meat consumption and cancer. In particular, people who eat the most processed meat have consistently suffered from alarming rates of colon and rectal cancer. Yesterday, the Daily Mail broke the story that the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that the cancer risk associated with eating processed meat is as clearcut as that of smoking.
This is obviously a watershed moment for the food movement. If the U.S. Surgeon General’s famous warning labels on tobacco products are appropriate given the health risks of smoking, surely it’s now equally appropriate for bacon and other processed meats to carry similar labels. After all, if a product available for purchase is likely to give you cancer when used as intended, shouldn’t you be warned? If bacon indeed poses as clear a cancer risk as tobacco, what justification could there possibly be to put warning labels on cigarettes but not on bacon?
As you might expect, the meat industry is presently taking an identical stance to the 1960s tobacco industry: denial and the usual bad-faith rhetoric about moderation and sensibility. The North American Meat Institute has already issued a response saying the IARC’s findings amount to, “dramatic and alarmist overreach.”
Never has there been such good reason for all the players within the food movement—vegans, reducetarians, and conscientious omnivores alike—to join forces. Warnings labels on bacon won’t destroy the meat industry any more than the Surgeon General’s warning destroyed the tobacco industry, but it’s the right thing to do and a moral imperative given what we now know about cancer risks. There has never been such cause for the various factions of the food movement to team up to ensure that processed meats get suitably labeled so that people know the risks they’re taking.
A decade ago it probably would have come off as unreasonable to contend that bacon deserves the sort of warning label found on a pack of cigarettes. But as of today, the legitimacy of this point of view can no longer be denied. It’s now inevitable that some meats will eventually carry health warning labels—and there can be no better metric of the food movement’s maturity and effectiveness than how quickly we can unite to make this happen.