Depending on the culture, meat from pigs—widely known as pork—can receive dichotic responses ranging from vitriolic revulsion to obsessive embrace. Muslims, Jews, many Hindus, and a variety of Christian denominations—more than 35 percent of the world’s population—are all religiously forbidden to eat pigs for a number of reasons, yet pork nevertheless remains the world’s most regularly consumed meat. And if pigs were not polarizing enough already, late last month the World Health Organization (WHO) classified processed meats as definitively carcinogenic, placing foods such as ham and bacon in the same category as tobacco smoke, asbestos, and diesel engine exhaust.
Although both public and private backlash have been strong—forcing the WHO to further clarify and backtrack on some of their initial claims just days later—the recent studies have already affected hog futures and are likely to have additional effects on the global supply and demand of pork and pork products.
But to what extent will the link between processed meats and cancer affect the long- term trade of the world’s most beloved livestock? While nothing is certain, clues may lie in the history and trajectory of global commodities that have similarly fallen out of favor amid public health concerns.
Even then, however, pork’s future remains ambiguous, with the developed and developing worlds on starkly different paths.
The story of the domesticated pig Sus domesticus is as old as civilization itself. First domesticated from wild boar nearly 10,000 years ago, pigs have been used as livestock and an essential form of protein ever since. Intelligent and highly adaptable—especially due to their hardy and omnivorous nature—domesticated pigs quickly spread across much of the Old World. Methods of curing, salting, smoking, and fermenting evolved alongside the animal’s global dissemination, allowing pigs and other prized meats to be traded and transported over increasingly long distances.
Beyond acting as a simple source of meat, pigs were also kept for another, more polarizing characteristic: their insatiable and often desultory appetites. Keenly aware of the use of such a unique trait, ancient civilizations, and some modern societies, would dispose of troublesome waste and excrement via use of pig fodder, which simultaneously helped feed valuable sources of protein. Religious restrictions on the consumption of pork, therefore, are often interpreted as a means of preventing the disease and infection associated with animals with such indiscriminate appetites.
But, as mentioned previously, such characteristics have not hindered the pig’s ascent toward the title of world’s most consumed animal. As of 2012, pork accounted for over 36 percent of world meat consumption compared to poultry and beef which represent just 35 percent and 22 percent of global consumption, respectively. Moreover, pork’s popularity is only continuing to grow; since 1960, pork production has surged from 19.4 to 111.5 million tonnes per year in 2015— which, at a 475 percent increase, far outstrips the global population growth of 141 percent over the same period.,
Beyond the animal’s delicious taste, many countries—especially those in the developing world—may also be attracted to the pig for its sheer efficiency. Over the course of their lives, pigs are able to convert 35 percent of their food’s energy into protein compared to just 13 percent for sheep and a paltry 6.5 percent for cattle. Moreover, a single sow gives birth to eight or more piglets at a time, a feat achieved after a gestation period of only four months compared to the nine months it takes a heifer to produce one calf. Coupled with pigs’ capacity to consume nearly any organic material, be it previously eaten or not, pork’s relative efficiency as a source of protein seemed to make it the logical choice for meat-lovers in both developed and developing countries, at least until last month.
Interestingly, the recent report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)—an arm of the World Health Organization—does not touch on the pig’s indiscriminate appetite. Rather, the study focuses on the means of processing meat as a cause of cancer, especially colorectal cancer. In other words, pork and other red meats (despite the widespread commercial branding of pork as “white meat”, it is in fact officially classified as red meat) are not necessarily harmful in and of themselves—although the same report acknowledged that this link may also exist—but it is the respective processes and treating that turn the world’s most adored forms of protein into highly probable causes of cancer.
To arrive at such a conclusion, the WHO and the IARC vetted government and academic scientists to independently analyze the association between cancer and both processed and unprocessed red meats. After six months of reviewing over 800 different studies on meat consumption, the panel of 22 experts from 10 different countries convened in Lyon, France for a week in order to classify red and processed meats into one of five categories ranging from “carcinogenic to humans” to “probably not carcinogenic to humans.”,
Ultimately, the panel of experts decided to classify all processed meats as carcinogenic and all unprocessed red meats as “probably carcinogenic.” And while the WHO suggested that diets high in processed red meats cause between 34,000 and 50,000 deaths annually—based on an 18 percent increased risk in colorectal cancer for every 50 gram portion of processed meat consumed daily—the exact means by which processing creates carcinogenic attributes is still not yet understood, only that a correlation between the two exists.
Despite the organization’s best attempts to clarify its findings and classification system, both the public and private were quick to criticize and question the validity of the WHO’s claims. On the private side, organizations such as the North American Meat Institute trade association—which represents a variety of meat producers and processors, including Cargill, Sysco, JBS, Costco, and Tyson foods—said in a statement that those conducting the research for the study “tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome.” And while some consumers around the world were quick to accept the WHO’s study as fact, others remained skeptical of its findings, pointing out similar, overblown warnings and unfounded scares over the past several decades about foods to avoid.
Although the WHO and IARC have wrongly classified carcinogenic agents before, 90 percent of these cases were actually reclassified as being more dangerous to human health. Of the nearly 1,000 potential carcinogens the WHO and IARC have studied since 1971, only one, a chemical used in nylon production called Caprolactam, has been determined to “probably not” cause cancer—although it should be noted that the IARC only studies agents that have already displayed a possible carcinogenicity.
The WHO’s report also comes at a time of growing demand for all types of meat, be it processed or not, especially in the developing world. China, most influentially, has seen massive increases in meat consumption over the past decade, the majority of which has been pork; in 2003, the average Chinese citizen consumed an estimated 101 pounds of meat per year (including, but not limited to pork), a number which increased to an estimated 132 pounds by 2015. When combined with the sheer size of the Chinese population, China’s central role in the global pork market becomes apparent: in 2015, China consumed more than half of all pork in the world—an estimated 57,200,000 tonnes out of the 110,944,000-tonne global total.
And although China’s pig penchant appears to be a fairly recent phenomenon based on available data, the country’s connection with the animal actually stretches back centuries. Believed by many to have first been domesticated in China, the pig has almost always been the country’s primary source of protein. Beyond protein, pigs even play an integral role in Chinese tradition and folklore; not only are pigs one of the twelve signs of the zodiac, but also the Mandarin words for “meat” and “pork” are used interchangeably, while the character for “family” or “home” is a pig under a roof.
China’s growing demand for pigs has increasingly come to represent the country’s newfound prosperity. In 2014, for example, the Chinese ate roughly 86 pounds of pork per person—nearly five times as much as they ate in 1979. Meanwhile, the world’s second- and third-largest pork consumers, Europe and North America, respectively, have been eating progressively less pork per capita largely due to health and environmental concerns. Global pig consumption, therefore, may ultimately rely on the growth of the Chinese economy—a trend which has been looking increasingly suspect in light of China’s economic slowdown.
Regardless, as much of the international meat-loving community continues to scrutinize and contest the IARC and WHO’s recent study, the extent to which these conclusions will impact the future of the pig is still far from clear. The answer to such uncertainties, however, may lie in another once-beloved commodity that ultimately fell from relative grace: tobacco.
Although a number of efforts had been taken to curb tobacco use throughout its history, it wasn’t until the late 1930’s that two Nazi scientists first established a link between cancer and smoking. Unsurprisingly, seminal German research into the carcinogenic nature of tobacco was dismissed as propaganda following the war. Ultimately, it took until the early 1950s for British and American doctors to bring truly consistent, statistical attention to the correlation between lung cancer and smoking., And even then, smoking continued to increase in much of the developed world; widespread awareness around the breadth of such revelations only came in the late 1960s.
Since then, the story of tobacco has been one almost entirely of awareness and regulation. Although most countries, especially those in the developed world, had independently introduced legislation and awareness campaigns much earlier, it wasn’t until 2003 that the WHO was able to adopt an international treaty on tobacco control; going into force in 2005, the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) aimed to mitigate the complex causes of the world’s tobacco epidemic by monitoring use, raising taxes on tobacco, enforcing bans on advertising and promotion, and raising global awareness, among other things.
Yet despite the FCTC being one of the most quickly ratified treaties in the history of the United Nations, tobacco consumption has nevertheless seen continued growth over recent decades—between 1980 and 2012, the number of men and women who smoked daily jumped from 721 million to 967 million.
In reality, most of the measures and restrictions laid out by the FCTC were only adopted by countries with the ample infrastructure and sense of urgency necessary to do so. As many have noted, nearly 33 percent of FCTC signatories’ responses to the treaty’s guidelines have so far been misreported. Moreover, while global consumption has continued to rise unabated, when one looks solely at the developed world—where, in OECD countries, smoking rates have declined by an average of over 30 percent between 1990 and 2010—the nuanced nature of tobacco’s continued growth becomes much more transparent.
Unsurprisingly, China, both the world’s largest developing country and largest country in general, is at the center of such growth. Consuming over a third of the world’s cigarettes, China is expected to experience roughly two million smoking related deaths in 2030, double its 2010 figures. As rates of tobacco use continue to rise in the developing world, particularly in China, and levels continue to decrease in the developed world, the tobacco industry will therefore increasingly rely on the developing world’s demand as a source of revenue—a trend which might soon be likely for pork as well.
Even on the domestic level, moreover, many countries experience widely contrasting levels of tobacco use among different socioeconomic groups. In the United States, for example, only 12.9 percent of adults who can afford relatively expensive private health insurance consistently smoked in 2014, while 29.1 percent of those on federally-funded Medicaid and 27.9 percent of uninsured were smokers during that same period—highlighting the correlation between being a smoker and being low-income.
Although there are similarities between tobacco and pork, the two commodities are far from synonymous. For one, pigs are not addictive despite what some obsessive consumers might attest. Also, smoking is far more carcinogenic than processed meat consumption—the former can make a person more than twenty times more likely to get cancer, while the latter increases that likelihood by 18 percent. Moreover, the protein that pigs provide can be easily supplanted by a variety of other meats or vegetarian options. And lastly, pigs do not exhibit any analogous form of second hand smoke― which is even carcinogenic for non-consumers of tobacco and causes significant environmental damage in addition to roughly 600,000 deaths a year., Tobacco, on the other hand, has few healthy alternatives, meaning that users would have to give it up entirely in order to be healthy—a feat more difficult than substitution. That said, pigs do ultimately provide essential forms of protein while tobacco has few, if any, health benefits.
Although hog futures felt an instant backlash after the WHO’s controversial announcement, long-term effects of the study will most likely be culturally and economically-based. Like tobacco, pork’s fate will ultimately depend on future studies regarding the correlation between processed meat and certain forms of cancer. But, as we have also seen in the case of tobacco, even the most unanimous scientific consensus will inevitably warrant divisive responses in different communities.
Especially in parts of the developing world, where pork is often incorporated into traditional dishes and raised as a means of survival for many farmers and their communities, pigs are likely to be none the wiser, and none the rarer, following the WHO’s study.
And although the WHO’s classification is unlikely to even dent the growing consumption of meats in the developing world, the same is not necessarily true for wealthier countries. In fact, the carcinogenic properties of processed meats are likely to expedite the growing concern over health and nutrition in the West. Predictably, many of the global news headlines following the WHO’s announcement were misleadingly provocative but, even so, the precise nature of science often plays a supporting role to the publicly perceived effects.
Pork, processed meat, and the affordable delicacies that they produce are here to stay—for now. Despite the initial clamor and panic, the popularity of the pig will almost assuredly survive its most recent defamation. The farther ahead one looks, however, the murkier the trend lines become, though it is likely that as much of the world continues to develop and become increasingly health conscious, the pig will slowly but surely be phased out of many people’s diets.
For China, the implications of pork’s now-proven carcinogenicity are especially complex. First off, there is the fact that the pork has been found to be “definitively” carcinogenic only when it has been processed. In the US, where processed pork products like bacon, ham and sausage reign supreme, the implications of such a finding are troubling. In China, however, processed pork products—although now a booming industry—are relatively new, having grown alongside the expansion of supermarkets in China over the past few decades. So at first glance, it may seem obvious that Chinese consumers would simply backtrack away from processed pig meat and revert back to fresher pork products.
And yet, processed “convenience” foods are gaining in popularity in China and becoming the norm for many of the country’s younger consumers. So the idea of simply backtracking to fresh pork, despite the product’s cultural importance, may be easier said than done for younger people, especially those in lower and middle-income brackets.
But for wealthy Chinese—both young and old—the story is likely to mirror that of rich Americans and their use of tobacco. Consumption of carcinogenic pork products by wealthy Chinese people is likely to drop, especially given the fact that processed pork, unlike tobacco, can be replaced by healthier alternatives with relative ease.
In terms of impact on overall Chinese demand, however, a decrease in consumption by the wealthy may mean relatively little in the short- and even medium-terms. The most salient factor going forward will be around the nature of development in the fast-developing country, or how quickly the number of wealthy people in China grows compared with how quickly the number of its lower- and middle-class residents grows. Also important will be whether or not there is a concerted policy effort to reduce processed pork consumption as there has been for tobacco use, though China’s relative sluggishness to institute forceful anti-smoking measures may be indicative of how policymakers will react to the pork discovery.
Ultimately, for the foreseeable future, Chinese demand for all pork products is likely to remain robust. Long-term, however, the fate of processed pork products in the East Asian superpower—and the developing world in general—is far from clear.