Opinion: Should red meat be concerned about ‘correlations’ with bowel cancer?

Greg Campbell*, 24/07/2023


A COMMENT in a July 4 ABC News item by Australian colorectal surgeon Dr Carina Chow caught my eye.  She stated that Bowel Cancer Australia figures suggest that during the past three decades bowel cancer incidence rates in 15 to 24-year-olds have jumped 266 percent.

To someone outside the medical world this seemed striking, but some further investigation reveals this to be a common trend in most developed nations, especially in young adults aged 20-39 years.

While bowel (colorectal) cancer remains predominantly a disease of the older (50+ years) population, such increases among younger people remain concerning and unexplained.

Since at least the 1970s (Armstrong & Doll, 1975) there has been a known correlation between red meat consumption and bowel cancer.  For many years fresh and processed meats (salted, smoked, cured, fermented) were lumped together as a factor in bowel cancer, but more recent research has determined an “assured” link to processed meat, and a “probable” link to fresh meat.

Likely cancer-causing chemicals such as haem, nitrates and nitrites, heterocylic and polycyclic amines have been identified.  These chemicals are not specific to red meat, and the exact mechanisms by which they might cause cancer, specifically bowel cancer, do not appear to be clear, but remain a subject of very active research.

Red meat, particularly fresh red meat, therefore, is implicated by association rather than known cause. This association has resulted in the Australian dietary guidelines and the Cancer Council both recommending consumption of red meat be limited to 455 grams per week, or 24kg per year.  Australians on average eat nearly twice that amount.

Consumption changes

Beef and pork are the predominant red meats eaten in Australia. The consumption of beef per capita has been declining in Australia for decades. Except for a brief spike in 1975 (due to the abundance of cheap beef during the Beef Slump), consumption of beef in Australia has declined from 46kg per capita in 1962 to 18.8kg per capita in 2022 – a 60pc decline.  Consumption of pork increased from 9kg in 1962 to 20.2kg per capita in 2021.  After peaking at 28kg per capita in about 2014, pork consumption has been in steady decline since.

With a substantial reduction in per capita consumption of beef, and a ten-year plateau or steady decline in the consumption of pork, what do we make of the correlation between red meat consumption and the incidence rates of bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer rates are decreasing in older Australians, mostly assisted by screening, but are increasing at a concerning rate in younger Australians. Surely the previous assumptions that a correlation between red meat consumption and bowel cancer must indicate a cause, are now increasingly subject to caution and scepticism.

Perhaps it’s time to look more closely at more elements in the diet, along with other risk factors like alcohol, obesity, sedentary lifestyle (even if not obese), smoking, vaping and other trends relevant to younger people.


Greg Campbell

* Author Greg Campbell is a former chief executive of S. Kidman & Co
















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  1. Peter Paradice, 25/07/2023

    Thanks Greg for stimulating us to think back in time.
    In exercising our bodies (in the gym, running, on the bike or in the pool) some of us seek to replicate the daily rigor of our evolutionary past. Most of that past also contained much less food. Very occasionally there was feasting. More often involuntary fasting and nutritional depravations were the norm for ancestral hominids.
    A food culture of continuous feasting on sugared-up, modified, packaged food is the antithesis of a well exercised gut. Unsurprisingly cancer and metabolic disorder follow this modern alimentary abuse. A proliferation of prosperous cancer surgeons is a symptom not a cure.
    In this paradigm too much beef is the least of our worries. Unadulterated fresh beef sits comfortably in an enlightened food culture.
    To EXERCISE the gut try fasting (from sugar & carb) then feasting on beef.

  2. Mark Davie, 25/07/2023

    Thank you, Greg, some great points. We had nutritionist Dr Anneline Padayachee present at our ABSF launch in June. She touched on the research missing the link between declining vegetable consumption and increasing bowel cancer. Proposing that the old meat and 3 vegetables may have been closer to a balanced diet.

  3. Garrey Sellars, 25/07/2023

    Is this a symptom of after treatment of preservatives added The decline in consumption I would attribute to the price gouging in retail (not the producer) thus costing more for consumers therefore spending less.
    Does this include meat consumed from fast food outlets?

  4. Bill Cameron, 25/07/2023

    Through 6 years of looking at dietary issues,including red meat,the association between it and colon cancer seems pretty weak. The nutritiant density is so high, to reduce its consumption would be against good nutritional practice. Ultra processed foods touted by others has alot to answer for.
    Lastly,we ate a diet rich in red meat since modern humans emerged,our body is tuned to its ingestion and the incidence of bowel cancer was low till the middle of the last century.

  5. Andrew Wrigley, 25/07/2023

    Thanks for the opinion piece Greg.
    My father told me once that he was going to write a dietary book, unfortunately it wasn’t going to be marketable because it was only one sentence long
    “ Eat a modest amount of a wide variety of unprocessed food “
    Often for me the sugar, salt, fat and convenience of processed foods are just too tempting the only thing that saves me is good quality beef.

  6. mick alexander, 24/07/2023

    Good article – but no outcomes or aha’s even. if beef consumption is falling and rates of cancer are rising then it would not be fresh meat but maybe processed nitrate loaded products or maybe chicken as this is the easy takeaway meal of todays youth – agree it is more likely to be linked to lifestyle choices including alchohol and vaping etc.

  7. Ian McCamley, 24/07/2023

    Your last sentence nails it Greg. Maybe also include a look at the relationship between Chicken consumption and bowel cancer.

  8. Greg, 24/07/2023

    Good, thought provoking article Greg, but you forgot to mention DIETARY FIBRE INTAKE in your last paragraph.

  9. Matthew Della Gola, 24/07/2023

    Really good point Mr Campbell makes. Always a concern when health trends like this spike. Probably the second most alarming statistic in that piece is the huge fall in consumption of beef. The fact that a staple is used like many other staples as a political football to justify cost of living pressure is seriously offensive to anyone with a modest amount of intellect. I think statistics like this underline the farce that is mla. A couple of catchy ads and a shiny pamphlet a couple of times a year is clearly not educating our consumer about the long term benefits of having beef in their diets. Cheers Matthew Della Gola

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