Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Hot Dogs = Cancer Risk Lawsuit

Photo courtesy of Sarah Lewis.

Did you hear about this? The Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine is suing several hot dog companies over requiring a warning label stating the link between processed meats and cancer risk.

Please take the time to read the story as posted on the Meat Institute's web site (my comments follow):

Meat Institute urges court to dismiss ‘nuisance’ hotdog lawsuit

By Caroline Scott-Thomas, 23-Jul-2009

The American Meat Institute has urged a New Jersey court to dismiss a lawsuit from vegan advocacy group Cancer Project that claims hotdogs should carry a cancer warning label.

The Cancer Project, an affiliate of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said it is acting on behalf of three New Jersey residents and has filed a class-action consumer fraud lawsuit, arguing that hotdogs should carry the following label: “Warning: Consuming hot dogs and other processed meats increases the risk of cancer" on the back of recent studies that have linked the consumption of processed meat with higher cancer risk.

The five companies being sued at the Essex County Superior Court are Nathan’s Famous, Kraft Foods/Oscar Mayer, Sara Lee, Con Agra Foods, and Marathon Enterprises.

President of the Cancer Project Neal Barnard said: "Just as tobacco causes lung cancer, processed meats are linked to colon cancer. Companies that sell hot dogs are well aware of the danger, and their customers deserve the same information."

But the American Meat Institute (AMI) has rejected the move as a “nuisance”.

"We hope the court will move quickly to review the science affirming the safety of hot dogs and processed meats and dismiss this lawsuit, recognizing it for the nuisance that it is," said AMI President J. Patrick Boyle. "Meat products are regulated and inspected by USDA and bear the federal government's seal of inspection, showing they are wholesome and nutritious.”

Conflicting science

Studies that have linked processed meat with cancer risk have often focused on nitrates and nitrites which are used as preservatives. However, these also occur naturally in fruits and vegetables, and recent studies have even linked the much maligned additives to improved cardiovascular health.

However, the Cancer Project cited a report from the American Institute for Cancer Research which claimed that a daily 50-gram serving of processed meat – about the amount in one hot dog – consumed daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by an average of 21 percent.

“The nitrites often used as a preservative can produce compounds that are suspected carcinogens. The bottom line is that science has tied processed meat consumption to increased cancer risk. That’s why hot dogs should be avoided,” the organization said.

However, other scientific reviews, including one from Harvard University in 2004 that examined 14 previous studies, have not found the same link.

Commenting on his own study into the additives, Dr Nathan Bryan, an expert on nitrates and nitrites from the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, said: “The public perception is that nitrites and nitrates are carcinogens but they are not. Many studies implicating nitrite and nitrate in cancer are based on very weak epidemiological data. If nitrite and nitrate were harmful to us, then we would not be advised to eat green leafy vegetables or swallow our own saliva, which is enriched in nitrate."


If this weren't so outrageous, it would be just ridiculous. So, essentially, the Meat Institute is ignoring research that links consumption of processed meats with colon cancer, and actually have the nerve to turn it around to suggest that fruits and vegetables share one nutritional similarity to processed meats, and therefore processed meats are not any more dangerous to consume than fruits and vegetables.

This is absurd on so many levels. Where do I start?

First of all, I have to say, I got a little snicker out of them saying that this is a "nuisance." Well, that much is true. Who would want to put a label on their goods that translates to "DON'T BUY ME"? Yes, I agree this is a nuisance to the meat institute.

Second, the argument that nitrites and nitrates are in fruits and vegetables too, well, that's seriously flawed logic. According to an article published this month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, scientists are starting to question the toxicity of nitrates and nitrites to humans, suggesting even a protective benefit. I can buy that, if the studies pan out. The authors DO state, however (and I quote): "It is reasonable to conclude that all food sources of
nitrate and nitrite are not equal with regard to potential health benefits or risks." [Hord N, Tang Y, Bryan N. Food sources of nitrates and nitrites: the physiologic context for potential health benefits. Am J Clin Nutr 2009; 90(1):1-10] But even if it were discovered that nitrates and nitrites are Miracle Nutrients, eating more hot dogs is not the answer. Regardless of the true dangers/benefits of dietary nitrate/-ite, the fact still remains that high intakes of processed meats are associated with an increased risk of cancer. Period. Maybe scientiests incorrectly hypothesized the reasons for this association, but the association still exists.

Third, I take issue with the statement, "Meat products are regulated and inspected by USDA and bear the federal government's seal of inspection, showing they are wholesome and nutritious." Seriously? How much meat do you think is actually inspected by the USDA? According to an ABC News Story, a minimum of one chicken per 22,000 per week is tested for the dangerous E. coli 015H7; and inspectors only test a minimum of one of 300 beef carcasses per week. Have you seen the movie Food Inc.? Apparently the USDA is fine with fecal matter all over its meat. But really this is a topic for a whole different post.

Fourth, and most obvious, the group that stands to suffer the most (the Meat Institute and its members) is the one most loudly complaining about the labeling.

So what do you think? Is a lawsuit the way to go? Is it fair for the government to require such a warning, like they do for tobacco? I look forward to your comments.


Anonymous said...

I think this is a great move to get the media interested in this issue. The tobacco industry set a precedent for dishonesty in the face of profit losses and meat industries are mirroring their behaviour. It is only a matter of time before these similarities are identified by the mainstream media and the direct comparison to cigarettes in the lawsuit will certainly ring a few bells among journalists!

Nadine said...

Awesome analysis! I think the warning label is a good idea in theory; however, in practice it will not deter anyone from eating hot dogs unless of course you already do not eat hot dogs. As an ex-smoker, I was never once deterred by tobacco warnings (including very graphic images of what it does to you on the packs, instead they were just compartmentalized and forgotten. The thing with processed meat is that the majority of people know that it is unhealthy and a lot of people are aware of the E.coli and cancer risks but they choose to ignore it and compartmentalize it much like smokers do. There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way people view food and the end of the disconnect between cause and effect of meat eating. Love your blog btw!