Meat Under Fire for Causing Cancer, Death

PHOTO: The PCRM has put up a billboard off the Eisenhower Expressway warning Chicagoans that eating hot dogs can damage their health. A hot dog station is seen in this file photo.PlayBen Pipe Photography/Getty Images
WATCH Does Eating Red Meat Increase Risk of Death?

There's a war going on out there, and it can be found in your grocery store's meat aisle.

The latest battle comes in the act of a billboard. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a nonprofit organization that promotes preventive medicine, animal rights and plant-based diets, recently installed a giant Chicago billboard that reads, "Hot Dogs Cause Butt Cancer."

What they really mean is processed meats have been linked to colorectal cancer, but Susan Levin, nutrition education director at PCRM, said a recent study found that 39 percent of Americans don't even know what the colon (the last part of the digestive tract) is. The blunt statement makes it easier for laypeople to understand medical jargon that is intended for health professionals, not the average U.S. citizen.

"Processed meats are very closely linked to colorectal cancer," Levin said. "To us, that's unacceptable and it's not a safe food. We see it as our job to get that information out in a way that people can understand and it grabs attention."

But the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, a branch of the American Meat Institute, wasn't singing the same tune.

"The sign is pretty misleading," said Janet Riley, senior vice president of public affairs for the American Meat Institute. "We find this billboard pretty outrageous and alarmist. Hot dogs are part of a balanced diet. "

When it comes to addressing obesity in this country, health officials and consumers need to be aware of the amount of food eaten. The current daily meat recommendation is 5 to 7 ounces per day, Riley said.

But a new Harvard study out Monday revealed that eating a single serving of red meat per day might increased the risk of early death by 13 percent. And, according to the research, a daily serving of processed meat, including one hotdog or two strips of bacon, carried an even greater risk at 20 percent increased risk of early death.

"It's not really surprising because red meat consumption has been linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer," Dr. Frank Hu, co-author of the study, told Monday. "What is surprising is the magnitude of risk associated with very moderate red meat consumption."

The study comes on the heels of the headline-grabbing "pink slime" frenzy, in which thousands of critics were infuriated by the addition of the low-cost, ammonia-treated beef filler that comes from leftover cuts of meat. It's unclear how much ground beef in the United States contains the ingredient, but some estimate it is as high as 70 percent.

Bettina Siegel, a Houston resident whose blog, The Lunch Tray, concentrates on children's foods, decided to do something about the gag-worthy "pink slime." After learning that the USDA was about to purchase 7 million pounds of the slime for use in school lunches, she spearheaded a petition on that asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to "put an immediate end to the use of 'pink slime' in our children's school food."

"What angered me most is that fast-food places like McDonald's, Taco Bell and Burger King dropped 'pink slime' recently, but school kids, many of them economically dependent upon school food, are still being served it," Siegel said. "And unlike fast food consumers, they have no choice in the matter."

The mother of two is not against meat altogether. She said she buys and cooks organic meat for her children, but she said she feels lucky her family can afford to do so.

"I know not everyone can," Siegel said.

The USDA will announce today that schools will have the choice to buy and serve hamburger that contains the "pink slime."

"I think it's growing ever clearer to more and more people that the factory-farming model is just not sustainable in the long run," Siegel added. "We raise animals in horrific, abusive conditions that breed disease and then use antibiotics to control those diseases, leading to ever-more-drug resistant strains that could really harm us all down the road."