Purcell: What's the beef?

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The World Health Organization is the United Nations' public-health arm. I think we should change its name to the World Killjoy Organization — at least where its position on meat eating is concerned.

Last week the WHO released a report that argues that meat eating can cause cancer — that colon cancer and, possibly, stomach cancer are caused by processed meats, such as ham, sausages and bacon.

Why? Because the curing and smoking process produces carcinogenic chemicals — what we non-scientists refer to as flavor.

Not content to vilify bacon — hey, WHO, you may as well tell us that puppies and afternoon naps are bad for us — the report says unprocessed meats, such as beef and pork, may cause colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancer.

I don't imagine the scientists who produced this report are invited to many barbecues — and certainly not to my family's barbecues.

This summer my nephew smoked a pig in my yard. We built a make-shift block smokehouse, then spent the day setting hot coals under the dripping meat.

The aroma was so wonderful that far-away coyotes howled and total strangers wandered into my yard in a trance, a big smile on their faces as they smacked their lips.

I have a smaller smoker, too, that turns raw hunks of beef and pork into mouth-watering delicacies so tasty that even my elderly Aunt Edna, a lifelong churchgoer, cusses like an iron worker.

And there is my glorious Weber Grill, seasoned with gunk and grease from a thousand grillings. It transforms raw T-bones and pork tenderloins into gastronomic delights so satisfying, people drive miles to my house just for a sniff of the stuff.

You see, the meat products that the WHO tells us are bad for us are the same products that have been around for a long time — brought to America by immigrants who had mastered them.

Take the American hot dog. It originated in Germany "from a widespread common European sausage brought here by butchers of several nationalities," writes the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council.

The hot dog has become an American staple with each American consuming 60 a year — more than 7 billion total.

If meat eating and hot dogs are so bad for us, then we're all cooked. But are we? Well, let's put it in perspective.

First, the WHO report isn't telling us to stop eating meat — it isn't in the business of making health recommendations and also admits that meat has healthful benefits. Its report is just warning us that there is "sufficient evidence" of an increased risk of cancer from the consumption of processed meat.

Second, the scientists who reviewed the report did not reach a consensus. Though a majority of the 22 scientists who reviewed the data approved it, others had differences of opinion.

"The panel's conclusions were based primarily on epidemiological studies linking what people ate with cancers they developed later," writes The New York Times. "Often such studies can't prove a causal link."

Third, even if it is true that 34,000 cancer deaths annually are caused by the consumption of processed meat — the link between beef and pork and cancer are not as clear — that number pales in comparison to deaths caused by tobacco and booze.

According to The Times, "Tobacco smoking causes about a million cancer deaths a year worldwide; alcohol adds another 600,000 annual cancer deaths."

So what do we make of the latest be-wary-of-meat-eating study?

I'm no scientist or expert, but isn't moderation the key? My solution is to routinely eat fruit, vegetables, fish and chicken — and occasionally make beef and pork feasts on the smoker.

Beyond that, what's the beef?

Tom Purcell. Tom Purcell, author of "Misadventures of a 1970's Childhood" and "Comical Sense: A Lone Humorist Takes on a World Gone Nutty!" is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist.


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