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Comment on the report about increased cancer risk from meat and processed meat

No. 47c | 27/10/2015

By Harald zur Hausen, Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2008, former DKFZ Chairman and Scientific Director from 1983 until 2003

Prof. Harald zur Hausen

“It has been known for many years that there is a link between high consumption of red meat and processed meat products and the risk to get colon cancer. In the past, this was attributed primarily to a number of chemical compounds that form during the processes of grilling, frying or roasting (in particular nitroso compounds and aromatic hydrocarbons). However, it has become evident that the same chemical substances, which can also cause cancer in rodents when fed in high doses, also form when frying or broiling poultry or fish. So far, however, the intake of these types of meat has not been linked to an increased risk of developing colon cancer. In addition, it has been noted that populations with a very high intake of red meat and processed meat products, such as in Mongolia, Bolivia and Botswana, have a comparatively low colon cancer risk. Therefore, it is important to analyze the type of meat consumption that prevails in these countries.

Our research group has been intensively pursuing these questions. This research has made increasingly evident that meat products from a specific breed of cattle (specifically European-Asian dairy cattle) raise the colon cancer risk. Since we suspect the involvement of a species-specific factor, we started looking for corresponding agents in dairy cattle and derived products. Currently we are pursuing evidence derived from the isolation and characterization of specific infectious agents in this type of cattle in order to analyze their role in cancer, in synergism with the cited harmful chemical substances.

In our view, a global statement needs to be revised which states that red meat and meat products processed thereof (such as sausages) are responsible for the raise in cancer risk. Above all, in-depth epidemiological analyses are necessary to clarify whether and how the link to a species-specific factor can be confirmed by other studies.”

Publications by Harald zur Hausen on the topic (available upon request from the Press Office):

zur Hausen, H.: Proliferation-inducing viruses in non-permissive systems as possible causes of human cancers. Lancet 2001; 357: 381-384.

H. zur Hausen. The search for infectious agents of human cancers: where and why. Nobel lecture .Virology, 392: 1-10, 2009.

zur Hausen H: Red meat consumption and cancer: Reasons to suspect involvement of bovine infectious factors in colorectal cancer. Int. J. Cancer 2012; 130: 2475-2483.

zur Hausen, H. and de Villiers, E.M. Dairy cattle serum and milk factors contributing to the risk of colon and breast cancers. Int J Cancer. 2015; 137: 959-967

zur Hausen H. Risk factors: What do breast and CRC cancers and MS have in common? Nat Rev Clin Oncol. 2015; 12: 569-70. 

With more than 3,000 employees, the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) is Germany’s largest biomedical research institute. DKFZ scientists identify cancer risk factors, investigate how cancer progresses and develop new cancer prevention strategies. They are also developing new methods to diagnose tumors more precisely and treat cancer patients more successfully. The DKFZ's Cancer Information Service (KID) provides patients, interested citizens and experts with individual answers to questions relating to cancer.

To transfer promising approaches from cancer research to the clinic and thus improve the prognosis of cancer patients, the DKFZ cooperates with excellent research institutions and university hospitals throughout Germany:

  • National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT, 6 sites)
  • German Cancer Consortium (DKTK, 8 sites)
  • Hopp Children's Cancer Center (KiTZ) Heidelberg
  • Helmholtz Institute for Translational Oncology (HI-TRON Mainz) - A Helmholtz Institute of the DKFZ
  • DKFZ-Hector Cancer Institute at the University Medical Center Mannheim
  • National Cancer Prevention Center (jointly with German Cancer Aid)
The DKFZ is 90 percent financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and 10 percent by the state of Baden-Württemberg. The DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers.


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