Which is more dangerous—the processed meats that cause cancer or the industry that spins the evidence to get you to eat more of them?
This week the World Health Organization, the public health arm of the United Nations, finally came out and said something that we’ve pretty much known all along: processed meat is really, really bad for you. A daily portion of just 50 grams- that’s a single hot dog or two slices of bacon- increases the risk of colon or rectal cancer by 18 percent.
Processed meats cause cancer. Period.
It’s unequivocal. Salted, preserved, smoked, cured, and fermented meats can kill you. The WHO isn’t pussyfooting around with talk of possible carcinogens or a link with cancer; they’re saying it outright—processed meats give you cancer. These foods are now officially Class 1 Carcinogens, a classification that includes plutonium, arsenic, asbestos, and tobacco.
The meat industry responded with a shrug. Cancer? That old thing again?
The North American Meat Institute (NAMI), an industry lobby representing members who pack and process 95% of U.S. beef, pork, veal, and lamb products (and most of the turkey too) downplayed the risks in its official response, characterizing the WHO report as “alarmist overreach.” After all, carcinogens are merely “theoretical hazards.” They go on to say that if we want to avoid all carcinogens we’d never drink coffee, sit in the sun, or even breathe the air around us. It’s not like everyone who eats hot dogs will get cancer.
Carcinogens do not cause cancer at all times, under all circumstances. Some may only be carcinogenic if a person is exposed in a certain way (for example, swallowing it as opposed to touching it). Some may only cause cancer in people who have a certain genetic makeup. Some of these agents may lead to cancer after only a very small exposure, while others might require intense exposure over many years….Even if a substance or exposure is known or suspected to cause cancer, this does not necessarily mean that it can or should be avoided….
—NAMI press release, October 26, 2015
The meat industry has a long history of weakening or preventing dietary health initiatives.
Its lobby is a powerful political force, both in the legislative and the regulatory arena. The USDA has an unusually cozy relationship with meat lobbyists because the agency is tasked with both regulating and promoting the industry, and these conflicting interests play out every time the government develops dietary guidelines. This is a sector that, by NAMI estimates, contributes approximately $894 billion to the U.S. economy, earning it enormous access and influence on Capitol Hill. When tensions play out with the Department of Agriculture, the results generally wind up favoring the industry.
Over the years, the meat lobby has successfully influenced lawmakers and regulators to contradict scientific evidence, government data, and even their own committee recommendations, impelling them to rewrite major initiatives and amend legislation shaping everything from the food pyramid to the implementation of salmonella testing in our food safety system. A familiar pattern emerges whenever a drop in consumption is recommended: attack the scientific methodology backing the recommendations. NAMI employs that time-tested tactic in its latest defense of processed meat. After chiding us for our silly fear of cancer-causing agents, this latest press release trots out old cancer studies that failed to establish causality, proof that, in the words of researchers at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, “Cancer is a complex disease that even the best and brightest minds don’t fully understand.” NAMI also reminds us that “Numerous published studies show that those who choose a vegan diet are at increased risk of mental decline due to lack of B12, iron deficiency anemia, osteoporosis and age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia).”
← billboards pulled out each spring for placement at hot dog hotbeds like MLB ballparks by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
Carcinogenicity of processed meat has been ringing alarm bells for decades with evidence rolling in from studies performed at Harvard’s School of Public Health, the American Institute for Cancer Research, the National Institutes of Health, and dozens more domestic and global research facilities. Researchers have linked processed meats to colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, and childhood leukemia, with risks increased by as much as 67 percent. Public health organizations like the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund have proclaimed hot dogs “unfit for human consumption” and would like to see an outright ban, and others have called for graphic warning labels like those for cigarettes.
The problem with processing.
There’s plenty of salt and saturated fat in hot dogs, salami, pastrami, and other processed meat products but it’s the nitrites that’ll kill you. Sodium nitrite is a salty preservative that’s added to develop flavor, keep the meat’s pink color, and inhibit bacterial growth. And the premium and organic meats that are labelled ‘no-added-nitrates’ or ‘naturally cured’? Brands like Applegate and Niman Ranch get around nitrite labeling with a little additive sleight-of-hand plus some arcane labeling loopholes courtesy of the FDA. They pour on the celery juice, which happens to be loaded with naturally occurring nitrate, then they add a naturally-derived bacterial culture that converts the harmless nitrate into harmful nitrite.
Alas, nitrite is nitrite. It makes no difference if it’s added directly or formed later, synthetic or naturally-derived. Take any kind of nitrite, add any kind of meat and heat, and it’s going to form cancer-causing compounds. When the Journal of Food Protection looked at popular hot dog brands, it found that the natural hot dogs had anywhere from one-half to 10 times the amount of nitrite that conventional hot dogs contained.
The USDA has been trying to rid the meat industry of nitrites since the 1970’s.
Naturally NAMI (then known as just AMI, the American Meat Institute) has always lobbied strenuously against restrictions or even additional labeling requirements, and trotted out its favorite tactic with the publication of the evidence-denying sodium nitrite Fact Sheet. In it, NAMI dismisses much of the research as “old myths” and the work of vegans and animal rights activists. It refers to sodium nitrite as “an essential public health tool,” and points to a 2005 animal study suggesting therapeutic uses for nitrites in the treatment of heart attacks, sickle cell disease, and leg vascular problems.
Most experts say that the occasional hot dog or BLT isn’t going to kill you. The choice is yours. And if there is honest and accurate labeling, you can make an informed choice. But if the meat lobby has its way, you’ll never get the chance.