BACKGROUND: Recently, some US cohorts have shown a moderate association between red and processed meat consumption and mortality supporting the results of previous studies among vegetarians. The aim of this study was to examine the association of red meat, processed meat, and poultry consumption with the risk of early death in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC). METHODS: Included in the analysis were 448,568 men and women without prevalent cancer, stroke, or myocardial infarction, and with complete information on diet, smoking, physical activity and body mass index, who were between 35 and 69 years old at baseline. Cox proportional hazards regression was used to examine the association of meat consumption with all-cause and cause-specific mortality. RESULTS: As of June 2009, 26,344 deaths were observed. After multivariate adjustment, a high consumption of red meat was related to higher all-cause mortality (hazard ratio (HR) = 1.14, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.01 to 1.28, 160+ versus 10 to 19.9 g/day), and the association was stronger for processed meat (HR = 1.44, 95% CI 1.24 to 1.66, 160+ versus 10 to 19.9 g/day). After correction for measurement error, higher all-cause mortality remained significant only for processed meat (HR = 1.18, 95% CI 1.11 to 1.25, per 50 g/d). We estimated that 3.3% (95% CI 1.5% to 5.0%) of deaths could be prevented if all participants had a processed meat consumption of less than 20 g/day. Significant associations with processed meat intake were observed for cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and 'other causes of death'. The consumption of poultry was not related to all-cause mortality. CONCLUSIONS: The results of our analysis support a moderate positive association between processed meat consumption and mortality, in particular due to cardiovascular diseases, but also to cancer.