In recent years, scientific research has led to the conclusion that processed meat and poultry increases the risk of colorectal cancer, which is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, and expected to account for 49,190 deaths in 2016.

­– Center for Science in the Public Interest


cheeseburgerAccording to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average American consumes more than 70 pounds of red meat and 55 pounds of poultry. Of this amount, it is estimated that just over 20 percent is of the processed variety.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit, consumer-advocacy organization located in Washington, DC, states that sufficient evidence exists to link the consumption of certain meats and poultry with colorectal cancer. As such, CSPI submitted a petition to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to require cancer warning labels on processed meat and poultry products.

Predictably, many individuals from the meat and poultry industries responded harshly to the petition, with some calling the petition baseless. Countering these critiques, CSPI and other organizations have cited research that warrants the need for warning labels.

This article examines the details of the petition and the cited research, along with the response from the meat and poultry industries.

The Petition

CSPI submitted a nine-page document titled “Petition for a Label on Processed Meat and Poultry Products Warning the Public that Frequent Consumption May Increase the Risk of Colorectal Cancer” to the USDA on December 1, 2016. On pages one and two of the petition, CSPI specifies how the warnings should appear on packages of meats “preserved by smoking, curing, salting, and/or the addition of chemical preservatives,” as follows:

“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 your consumption of such products.”

The petition also lists these three other requirements regarding how the warning labels should appear:

  • Warning label should be placed conspicuously, as to make it likely such warnings will be read by the consumer prior to product use.
  • The words including “USDA WARNING” must appear in bold and capitalized letters.
  • The warning’s text must be set aside (separate) from any other text via an outlined box.

CSPI’s requirements for processed poultry products are the same as the above criteria, with “processed poultry products” in place of “processed meat products” following the USDA WARNING part of the petition.

Factual Basis

The CSPI cites specific research, along with other organization’s warnings about processed meats and poultry, as the rationale for why such labeling should be a requirement, stating that “CSPI is submitting this petition because convincing scientific evidence demonstrates that frequent consumption of processed meat carries a recognized and avoidable risk to public health to which consumers should be alerted.”

The petition cites the following three main research findings:

  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)—an agency of the World Health Organization—announced on October 26, 2015 that processed meats have a carcinogenic effect on human health.
  • The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), its affiliate the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), and the Imperial College London state that cumulative research is “convincing” that processed meats increase the risk of bowel cancer.
  • The American Cancer Society (ACS) advises consumers to “minimize consumption of processed meats such as bacon, sausage, luncheon meats, and hot dogs” as such foods increase the risk of colorectal cancer.

The CSPI concludes its findings by citing a 2015 AICR study showing that just 1 in 3 Americans were aware that processed meat was a catalyst for developing cancer.

Response from Industry

The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) was harsh in its criticism, stating that CSPI was essentially “the food police” for using scare tactics instead of objective science. Further, the president and CEO of NAMI stated that findings from IARC, WCRF, and others were based off of members’ votes instead of actual evidence.

In its statement, NAMI specifically called out the study’s members from the Harvard University School of Public Health; who made up seven of the 12 researchers that signed the petition. According to NAMI, these Harvard scientists have “failed to publish the complete findings from the largest study ever done on red and processed meat and colon cancer”—a study that consisted of 725,000 people. Allegedly, the researchers presented findings at a 2004 conference that were never published.