You might be shocked (or pleasantly surprised depending on your views) to learn that processed meat has been classified as a class 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization -- and now a group of doctors just sued the state of California for not adding it to its list of cancer warning. That’s the same classification as cigarettes. Gross.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) —a nonprofit organization with more than 25,000 members in California—was not happy that California repeatedly failed to add processed meat to the official list of known cancer-causing agents, so they sued the state to get this changed.

Processed Meats Raise the Risk of Colorectal, Pancreatic and Prostate and Cancers

According to the WHO,  processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1). Tobacco smoking and asbestos are also both classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1). While that may not mean that consumption of processed meat is as carcinogenic as tobacco smoking and asbestos, it is worth noting that this is the highest classification given.

The lawsuit filed against the State of California this week says they failed to include cancer-causing processed meat—such as hot dogs, bacon, and deli meat—on its list of substances known to cause cancer, as required by Proposition 65.  Proposition 65 requires the State of California to maintain a list of compounds known to cause cancer; despite the classification of processed meats by the WHO, California has not added it.

The lawsuit argues that California has neglected to follow a state law requiring the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) to include on its carcinogen list. Remember that the PCRM is the same group of doctors trying to get warning labels on cheese (because the trace estrogens could contribute to a woman's lifetime risk of developing breast cancer), and who are trying to get the USDA to "Ditch the Dairy" and take milk and cheese off the USDA's Daily Recommendations for the upcoming revisions of the food pyramid.

“It’s a clear-cut case,” says Mark Kennedy, Esq., vice president of legal affairs for the Physicians Committee. “California has been violating the law for nearly five years by failing to add processed meat to the Proposition 65 list. It’s time for the OEHHA to stop dragging its feet.”

Between 2017 and 2019, the Physicians Committee says it urged the OEHHA to follow the law and list processed meat as a cancer-causing substance. In February 2018, the Physicians Committee backed a resolution introduced in the California State Legislature urging the OEHHA to add processed meat to Proposition 65. In September 2019, the OEHHA told the Physicians Committee that the agency would make a determination regarding processed meat by January 2020 but it failed to do so.

The Beet spoke to a number of industry experts who backed the move by the PCRM. Carissa Kranz, a Super Lawyer-awarded attorney and founder and CEO of BeVeg International—a law firm that advocates for truth and transparency in labels, and certifies vegan businesses and products globally—weighed in.

“There is absolutely no reason to keep the results of these studies off any list that would openly and honestly warn the public of the potentially harmful health consequences of eating meat,” says Kranz. “I suspect PCRM will eventually win this battle, just like they sued the USDA over the old food pyramid and won. It is time for existing information and truth in labeling laws to evolve to reflect the truth: meat is linked to cancer. Period.”

Wait! How, who, when, where, why was meat classified as a Carcinogen? 

If you missed the news of the classification altogether, here’s a recap: In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified consumption of processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” on the basis of sufficient evidence for colorectal cancer, as well as pancreatic and prostate cancers.

This was based on 22 experts from 10 countries assessing more than 800 epidemiological studies. The experts concluded that each 50-gram portion of processed meat (about one hot dog) eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. The research also shows that eating 50 grams a day of processed meat increases the risk of breast cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, and overall cancer mortality.

The Upside -- If There Is An Upside

While we’ll have to wait and see how this all plays out in court, the good news is there has never been so much awareness about the issues of meat. From negative health implications to environmental hazards, to the ethics of factory-farmed animals, meat is suspect right now.

Consumers are getting savvy and companies are innovating to create affordable, accessible and great-tasting alternatives. Here at The Beet we have a number of resources to help in your transition to adding more plants, and perhaps avoiding meat or reducing consumption:


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