Hot Dogs Should Carry Cancer Warning Labels Says US Non Profit Group  

Comments by John Cartmell, MS, at end of article.

Hot Dogs Should Carry Cancer Warning Labels Says US Non Profit Group
by Catharine Paddock, PhD

A US non-profit organization filed a lawsuit on Wednesday asking a New Jersey county court to force food companies to put labels warning of cancer risks on any hot dogs they sell in New Jersey.

Described by the Los Angeles Times (LAT) as a vegan advocacy group, Cancer Project, wants food companies like Oscar Mayer and Hebrew National, big names in the hot dog world, to put labels on their hot dogs warning that eating this product and other processed meats "increases the risk of cancer".

President of the Cancer Project, Neal Barnard, who is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University medical school in Washington, DC, told LAT that:

"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," he added.

The lawsuit, which according to the LAT is seeking class action status, is brought against ConAgra Foods Inc (owners of Hebrew National), Kraft Foods Inc (owners of Oscar Meyer), Sara Lee Corp, Nathan's Famous Inc, and Marathon Enterprises Inc.

62 per cent of Americans eat some kind of processed pork, says Cancer Project, adding that in 2006, 1.5 billion pounds of hot dogs were consumed in the US, at an average of  32 pounds a year per person.

The group refers to a report from the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund where scientists say there is no safe amount of processed meat that can be eaten, and that just one 50-gram serving of bacon, sausage, deli meats or other processed meats, every day increases a person's chance of getting colorectal cancer by 21 per cent on average.

Processed and cured meats contain nitrites which are added to help preserve the meat. When ingested, these break down into nitrosamines and other chemicals that are thought to be cancer-causing.

Every year, about 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and about 50,000 Americans are expected to die of the disease in 2009.

However, there are mixed views about the research evidence, with some scientists saying it could be the fat content of the food (most processed meats also tend to have high fat) that is linked to cancer. For instance a Harvard study that pooled data from several studies found no link between red and processed meat and cancer but it did find there was a lower risk of cancer when fish and chicken consumption was higher.

There has been a strong reaction from the food industry and other nutritionists have also been skeptical.

Sydney Lindner, a spokeswoman from Kraft told the press:

"These proposals are unfounded. Hot dogs have been enjoyed by consumers for more than 100 years."

One nutritionist interviewed by the LAT said that people should be more worried about the food that is usually eaten with the hot dog, such as fat-laden potato, sugary drinks and desserts and macaroni salads.

Others say that while people should be careful about how much meat they eat, the occasional hot dog is not going to do them any harm. And even if it may be true that eating too much of a certain food like processed meat increases a person's risk of cancer, putting labels on everything will just lead to "warning fatigue".

The lawsuit follows a campaign earlier this month when Cancer Project sponsored a provocative highway billboard near Busch Stadium in St. Louis on the day that thousands of baseball fans flocked to watch President Obama throw the opening pitch to the 2009 All-Star Game.

The 48-foot wide digital billboard, located on I-70, one mile west of Lindbergh Boulevard, showed a picture of hot dogs jammed in a cigarette pack carrying the label "Unlucky Strikes" and the text: "Warning: Hot Dogs Can Strike You Out -- For Good."

Cancer Project says on its website that they want Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig to put "dietary disaster" warning labels on hot dogs served at Major League Baseball stadiums because, in their words, "processed meats have been convincingly linked to colorectal cancer".

Cancer Project describes itself as a group of physicians, researchers, and nutritionists who wish to "educate the public about the benefits of a healthy diet for cancer prevention and survival". The organization is affiliated to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and is based in Washington, DC.

John Cartmell, MS, comments

As a professional nutritionist, I can say something good or bad about any food, including whole foods like granola or kelp. It's been said that a little information is a dangerous thing. This axiom may apply to the cancer concerns of eating processed meats like hot dogs, sausage, ham, bacon or pre-sliced turkey.

The move to put cancer warnings on the labels of processed meat is actually based on the fact that these foods contain sodium nitrate or nitrite, which, in the presence of stomach acid, can combine with amino acids from the meat to produce "nitrosamines", a potent class of carcinogens. (This fact was apparently omitted in the lawsuit.)

The good thing about processed meats, in addition to their unique tastes, textures and convenience, is that the conversion of sodium nitrate and nitrite to cancer causing nitrosamines CAN BE significantly inhibited by including a Vit C rich food or supplement in the same meal. Another good thing is the amounts of nitrosamines in the American diet is not what it used to be. A 1981 report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) estimated that the per capita exposure is about 1 microgram per day from foods and beverages, mainly from fried bacon and beer. Current exposure is probably closer to 0.1 microgram per day due to successful efforts over the past 20 years to reduce nitrosamine formation in foods and beverages ( Should we pass a law to protect the people from their ignorance, or educate the people to make informed, intelligent choices about the food they eat? Which option promotes the American tradition of individual freedom of choice and responsibility?

The protective role of Vit C (and other antioxidants) against the formation of nitrosamines IS NOT NEW INFORMATION and has been known since the 1970s. What is new to the debate is the apparent omission of this information in the recent legal action against processed meats. The fact that this lawsuit has been filed by a vegan (total vegetarian - no animal products) advocacy group suggests that the real agenda is not limited to warnings on processed meats. Ultimately, vegan activists (including members of animal rights groups) seek to ban all animal based food products (meat, milk, eggs, fish) from the human diet (which is illogical since apes in the wild often eat meat in addition to fruits and vegetables).

Although this particular lawsuit pertains only to New Jersey, the decision in the case could eventually affect all Americans. Under the proposed national health care bill, where tax revenues will pay for the health care costs of all Americans, the diets and lifestyles of everyone will become the government's business. This will presumably include perceived risks of eating processed meats containing sodium nitrate or nitrite as well foods containing artificial sweeteners, flavors or colors, and high amounts of fats or sugar. (Note, moderate intake of these ingredients does not significantly increase the risk of disease.)

Personal accountability is a hallmark of a free society where individuals are allowed to make their own diet and lifestyle choices (good or bad) and take responsibility for these decisions. Currently, if a person's diet or lifestyle increases the risk of disease, they pay higher premiums for health insurance. However, under a national health care system where taxpayers will pay for treatments resulting from high risk behaviors, individual choices of diet and lifestyle will be strictly regulated. This is one of the major arguments against socialized health care - it won't protect the individual's freedom of choice.

How significant a danger processed meats containing nitrates or nitrites pose to the consumer depends partly on the amounts and frequency of consumption, as well as the amounts of antioxidants contained in the same meal.

A positive outcome of this legislation may be that producers of processed meat may finally be forced to remove sodium nitrate and nitrite from their meat products. These controversial ingredients have long been promoted as antimicrobial preservatives required for public food safety. But if these ingredients were really that essential for food safety, why are processed meats free of sodium nitrate or nitrite allowed on the market?

John W. Cartmell, MS

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