Could Processed Meat Give You Cancer?

Here are the numbers: Every 50 grams of processed meat you eat on a daily basis (that's about one hot dog) increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 21 percent.
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Are hot dogs a political issue? Surprisingly so.

On Monday July 25, my non-profit organization, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, erected a billboard outside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The picture was stark -- a cigarette pack emblazoned with a skull and crossbones. But sticking out of the pack were not cigarettes -- instead there were hot dogs. The message said "WARNING: Hot dogs can wreck your health."

The issue is cancer. Every year, about 143,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer and more than 50,000 die of the disease. About half of all cases are already incurable when found. The U.S. Government and other entities have poured millions of dollars into the search for the cause. But one of the causes they found turned out to be too hot for the government to handle.

It's the ordinary hot dog. At least 58 scientific studies have looked at the issue, and the jury has rendered its verdict, which is now beyond reasonable doubt. The more hot dogs people eat, the higher their risk of colorectal cancer. And it's not just hot dogs. Any sort of processed meat -- bacon, sausage, ham, deli slices -- is in this group. And here are the numbers: Every 50 grams of processed meat you eat on a daily basis (that's about one hot dog) increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 21 percent. And just as there is no safe level of smoking, no amount of hot dogs, bacon, sausage, ham or other processed meats comes out clean in scientific studies.

The problem goes beyond colorectal cancer. An NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study found a 10 percent increased risk of prostate cancer for every 10 grams of increased intake of processed meats. Other studies have linked these same products to leukemia and ovarian cancer. Exactly how processed meats do their dirty work is not clear; it could be their nitrites, saturated fat or other ingredients.

But here's where politics come in: Even though much of this research was paid for by the U.S. government, the government also subsidizes meat. It supports feed grains to fatten cows and pigs, buys up meats for the school lunch program and helps the meat industry in countless other ways. So I think that the last thing the government wants to do is to publicize the cancer risk of one of its favorite products. I believe that this is why there are no government billboards, radio ads or television spots to warn anyone about this easily preventable cause.

At a ballgame, if you're thinking about buying your daughter a hot dog, there are no notices, no warning labels on the food product, no nothing. Meat industry lobbyists have made sure that your government won't breathe a word.

The fact is, hot dogs are not fun, cute or "All-American." If you are not convinced, just ask to see how one is made.

When good research finds a potentially fatal risk to Americans -- one as close as our refrigerators and as dear to us as our children -- the government needs to let Americans know.

And when it does not, we will.

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