Warning labels should be required on packages of bacon, ham, hot dogs, and other processed meat and poultry products to let consumers know that eating these foods is associated with an increased risk of cancer of the colon and rectum or colorectal cancer.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy organization, filed a petition Thursday citing the findings of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which concluded in 2015 that processed meat is “carcinogenic to humans.”
Eating 50 grams per day of processed meat raises one’s risk of colorectal cancer by about 18 percent. A typical serving of ham, sausage, bologna, or hot dog weighs about 55 grams, about 2 ounces.
Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States and will cause about 49,150 deaths in 2016, according to the American Cancer Society. The ACS urges consumers to “minimize consumption of processed meats such as bacon, sausage, luncheon meats, and hot dogs.” IARC, ACS, and the World Cancer Research Fund all cite research that found an increased risk of colorectal cancer from eating processed meat daily.
“Consumers deserve these warning labels to help them make informed choices about the foods they eat,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the center.
Consumers who want to reduce their cancer risk can avoid processed meats or eat them much less often, Jacobson said. Other people may ignore the label.
However, he said, the U.S. Department of Agriculture should give people a choice by requiring the labeling.
The center’s petition says USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service 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, the USDA is obligated to require the industry to inform consumers about the risk of consuming processed meats, according to David Plunkett, the center’s senior food safety attorney.
The center 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 Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a dozen leading nutrition and epidemiology specialists 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 said, referring to estimates by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
Besides cutting back on processed meats, consumers who want to reduce their risk of colorectal cancer should also stay physically active, lose or avoid gaining excess weight, not smoke, and limit alcohol to two drinks a day.
In addition, getting screened for the disease is important. In June, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended that all adults aged 50 to 75 be screened with colonoscopy, fecal occult blood tests, or other measures.
Reducing the risk of colorectal cancer isn’t the only benefit of avoiding or cutting back on processed meat.
“Eat it no more than a couple of times a year, not just to lower your risk of colorectal cancer, but also diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said.
“We recognize that the chances of the Trump administration taking advantage of this opportunity to protect the public health are slim,” said Jacobson. “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.”