Activist group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to require a warning label on packages of bacon, ham, hot dogs and other processed meat and poultry products. The group said the labels would inform consumers that eating those foods is associated with an increased risk of cancer of the colon and rectum (colorectal cancer).
A regulatory petition filed by the group Dec. 2 cites the findings of the World Health Organization's (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which concluded in 2015 that processed meat is “carcinogenic to humans.”
Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. and will result inabout 49,150 deaths in 2016, according to the American Cancer Society, which urges consumers to “minimize consumption of processed meats such as bacon, sausage, luncheon meats and hot dogs.”
IARC, the American Cancer Society and the World Cancer Research Fund all cite research that found about an 18% increased risk of colorectal cancer for every 50 g of processed meat consumed daily. A typical serving of ham, sausage, bologna or hot dog weighs roughly 55 g, or about 2 oz.
“Consumers deserve these warning labels to help them make informed choices about the foods they eat,” CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson said. “Consumers who want to reduce their cancer risk may avoid processed meats or eat them much less often; other people may simply ignore the label, but without question, USDA should give people that choice.”
CSPI’s petition says USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) has the authority to require the labels under the Federal Meat Inspection Act. FSIS uses similar authority to require special labeling for meats processed without nitrate or nitrite and for mechanically tenderized meat. To protect the public’s health, USDA is obligated to require the industry to inform consumers about the risk of consuming processed meats, according to CSPI senior food safety attorney David Plunkett.
CSPI is asking for labels of all meat and poultry products preserved by smoking, curing, salting and/or the addition of chemical preservatives to bear this message: “USDA WARNING: Frequent consumption of processed meat products may increase your risk of developing cancer of the colon and rectum. To protect your health, limit consumption of such products.”
In a letter to outgoing Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a dozen nutrition and epidemiology scientists endorsed the idea of a warning label on processed meats. “People want clear and accurate information about potential health hazards in the foods they eat to help them make wise choices at the grocery store and restaurants,” the scientists wrote. The level of risk posed by processed meats may have contributed to as many as 5,000 colorectal cancer deaths in 2015 alone, they wrote, citing estimates by the Institute for Health Metrics & Evaluation.
Jacobson noted, “The chances of the Trump Administration taking advantage of this opportunity to protect the public health are slim, but at CSPI, we’re used to taking the long view. We will continue pushing for regulatory measures that will protect the health of Democrats, Republicans and all others.”
The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) said the “alarmist, sensational petition” is the most recent example of “the scare tactics that have earned the group the nickname 'the food police.'”
NAMI said the petition ignores numerous studies showing no correlation between meat and cancer and many more studies showing the many health benefits of balanced diets that include meat. It added, “Scientific evidence shows cancer is a complex disease not caused by single foods and that a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle choices are essential to good health.”
NAMI also pointed out that the IARC vote that CSPI cited as evidence -- a vote that was not unanimous -- was “taken badly out of context.”
NAMI explained, “After the vote, the WHO worked to reassure consumers, saying there were 'shortcomings' with IARC's classifications, which allowed the results to be 'misinterpreted.' WHO spokesperson Gregory Härtl told the Irish Times, 'Eat healthily means eating a balanced diet; too much of anything is not good.'"
Many more studies have found no relationship between meat and colon cancer, according to NAMI. In fact, the group said Dr. David Klurfeld, USDA's own scientist and a member of the IARC panel upon which the petition largely relies, published a paper in 2015 in which he cautioned against making alarmist claims like CSPI's given the full body of research. He concluded, "Moderate intake of a variety of foods that are enjoyed by people remains the best dietary advice."
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines suggest that moderate consumption of processed meats can be part of a healthy eating pattern, saying, "For those who eat animal products, the recommendation for the protein foods subgroup of meats, poultry and eggs can be met by consuming a variety of lean meats, lean poultry and eggs. Choices within these eating patterns may include processed meats and processed poultry as long as the resulting eating pattern is within limits for sodium, calories from saturated fats and added sugars and total calories."
NAMI also took to task the nutrition and epidemiology scientists who wrote the letter to Vilsack, saying, “Curiously, but not surprisingly, seven of the 12 researchers who signed a letter from CSPI to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack supporting the petition are from the Harvard School of Public Health -- the very school that runs a massive research study called 'The Pooling Project' and that failed to publish the complete findings from the largest study ever done on red and processed meat and color cancer.”
According to NAMI, that study of 725,000 people concluded that the data do not support a link between meat consumption and colon cancer. “The study was presented at a 2004 conference, but the findings were never released or published in a journal. So troubling is this failure to publish that two senators in 2007 wrote to the health and human services secretary urging it be published given its use of federal monies, yet it has never appeared in a journal or on the pooling project web site that houses other related studies," NAMI pointed out.