Bacon Causes Cancer...and Complacence

We can choose to be informed. We can choose to reduce harm to ourselves and the planet by eating less meat. And we can choose not to be complacent about industries that pollute our bodies and our environment.
10/29/2015 03:35 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2016

I wasn't surprised at the meat industry's reaction to the news this week that the World Health Organization has classified processed meat as carcinogenic.

Of course the industry is going to bend over backward to try to rebut the science - though the WHO looked at more than 800 studies - and offer conspiratorial theories about some vast and frightening "agenda." (If you mean the "agenda" about making sure people don't eat stuff that could give them cancer, then, yeah, there's an "agenda.")

More disturbing, though, was the reflexive indifference from the public at large. Within 24 hours of the WHO's announcement, the headlines shifted from Meat Classified as Carcinogenic to Keep Calm and Keep Eating Bacon.

The story quickly became a case of "Everything causes cancer, so why should I care?"

Look, no one is taking away your bacon. It's up to you to decide whether it's worth it to eat those extra strips of bacon, knowing that they could increase your risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent and that high meat consumption is generally unhealthy for you and the planet. I get that people really like their processed meats. But personal risk assessment shouldn't be the same thing as complacency about the pervasiveness of carcinogens in our lives.

Everything does cause cancer, or so it seems, because we're being exposed to cancer-causing agents - and told to ignore them - in a systematic way by powerful industries and their influence over our decision-makers. People assume that standard industry practices, like a lack of air pollution controls, are a necessary part of production. People also assume that if a product is on the shelves, it's safe - but more than 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States have never been fully tested for their health or environmental hazards.

Even the air we breathe is classified as carcinogenic. Industry would have you believe this is the natural state of things, rather than a state caused by industrial pollution. This is why, instead of giving up when we hear the latest reports, we need to use the power of information to raise public awareness, educate ourselves and demand better.

That's why the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, is urging the California Environmental Protection Agency to list processed and red meats as agents known to the state to cause cancer, as they're required to by Proposition 65, and to require warning labels where these products are sold and served. The meat industry will fight any labeling - they have a vested interest in increasing meat consumption and they know these warnings might make people think twice about their food choices and encourage restaurants and producers to provide food that's free of known carcinogens.

For those who claim Prop 65 is ineffective because the warnings are everywhere: The solution to that problem isn't to label less when there's sufficient evidence of risk, but to strive to have fewer products that need labeling.

We can choose to be informed. We can choose to reduce harm to ourselves and the planet by eating less meat. And we can choose not to be complacent about industries that pollute our bodies and our environment. We need to start demanding transparency and accountability from those who would have us believe that "everything causes cancer" is the only possible outcome. Life may be inherently fatal, but that doesn't mean we need to accept living in a toxic world.