Junk science

Eat Food and Die

What happens when warnings about processed meat's cancer risk collides with California's absurd Prop 65 (over)warning law?


Credit: Didriks / photo on flickr

By now you've heard about a new World Health Organization report that links consumption of bacon, sausage, beef, and other meats to cancer.

Some early reports, based on the WHO classification, painted the connection between bacon and cancer as equivalent to that between cigarette smoking and cancer.

Many activists used the WHO announcement as cause to take a victory lap. #BanBacon, a subtle hashtag created earlier this year by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a vegan group, got a new workout.

But the facts appear to be catching up to the frenzy.

"It is certainly very inappropriate to suggest that any adverse effect of bacon and sausages on the risk of bowel cancer is comparable to the dangers of tobacco smoke, which is loaded with known chemical carcinogens and increases the risk of lung cancer in cigarette smokers by around 20 fold," Dr. Ian Johnson of the Institute of Food Research told Britain's Telegraph.

Perspective like this helps. As others have noted, the increased risk associated with eating bacon and the other foods listed in the WHO report is scant—something along the lines of an increase of one percentage point (from five percent to six percent). The WHO itself clarified this point in the wake of the fatalistic headlines caused by its report.

The WHO report estimates that 34,000 out of 56 million annual deaths worldwide may be attributable to eating processed meats. That's 0.06 percent of all deaths worldwide.

The molehill of risk has real-world implications. In fact, it could lead to a mountain of regulations and litigation—beginning right here in America.

"Will the Golden State now require steaks, chops, and burgers to have such labels?" asked Reason's Ron Bailey last month, in the wake of the WHO report.

Sure enough, reports emerged last week that the report would spur a clash in California.

Why California? As Bailey and I feared, there's already talk of moving meat onto California's list of cancer-causing foods under the state's Proposition 65 law—a list that already includes some chicken, cereal, crackers, cookies, bread, French fries, and potato chips.

I was in Santa Monica last month and joked with colleagues about the Prop 65 warning that appeared right next to the entrance to the hotel. "Chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer, or birth defects or other reproductive harm[,] may be present in foods or beverages sold here," the sign reads.

Which chemicals? Which foods? Who knows? While you'll see these signs at virtually ever grocer, corner store, and coffee shop in California, it's largely not because the warnings are necessary or meaningful but because the state—or even private individuals or their heroic lawyers—can sue those who fail to display these worthless signs.

The overwarning caused by Prop 65 in California, I've noted before, is as outrageous as it is unhelpful. It's as absurd as it is counterproductive. "The nation's breadbasket now wants us to fear bread," I wrote in a 2010 law-review article that focused in part on the idiocy of applying Prop 65 to food, something—as I also note in the article—that Prop 65 was never intended to do.

But perhaps the activists I noted earlier would be smart to look at the foods already on California's Prop 65 list, which includes several vegan offerings, including coffee, roasted asparagus, canned pumpkin, black olives, roasted nuts, and prune juice. The government says those vegan foods cause cancer. That's no reason for meat eaters to take a victory lap. Instead, it's another reason to question the ineffectiveness of Prop 65 and of hysterical reports masquerading as science.

NEXT: Sex-Trafficking Discussion in Portland Tonight

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Let’s not forget in all this that product labeling laws are a violation of Freedom of the Press !

  2. mmmmm….bacon.

  3. Prop 65 was goofy right from the start. I remember wondering how long it would take its backers to realize how pointless it was once even 10% of products had the label. Gas pumps were, in some ways, the stupidest aspect, since people could not avoid gas pumps like they could avoid truly toxic chemicals which people had not known were toxic. Common home cleaners? Sure, some didn’t have the label, so people could switch, but gas pumps? All they did was make the sign invisible and worthless.

    And the backers just doubled down. I had thought they might switch campaigns, but all they do is sue and whine and want the label applied to more places and products. They are incapable of learning. As the old saying goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. What do you call people who expand their efforts each time, super-insane?

    1. They fucking hate science.

      1. They hate the simplest logic. They are feelz and only the crudest most rudimentary at that. They hate the idea that humans might actually think things through and not bow to their feelz.

      2. Close:

        They just fucking hate.

    2. people in politics don’t make mistakes. if they admit to mistakes in the past, it suggests they could make mistakes in the future, which suggests there might be a limit to the amount of power they should have. if you believe that it’s because you hate stuff?

    3. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.
      The result of excessive labeling, has been so many labels that they all get ignored.

  4. The true beneficiaries of the Prop 65 signs? Signmakers. The public sure isn’t benefiting, if any stop to read the signs, for the costs of all these signs gets passed on to them with no commensurate benefit.

  5. Do they have Prop 65 signs next to the “Welcome to California” signs at airports and border crossings?

    1. I’ve seen them in hotels, malls, and office buildings due to construction materials, paint, flooring, etc. off-gassing.

  6. Air is the primary source of oxygen radicals; they cause cancer and kill you.

    I demand immediate action! Put up signs everywhere that the “Air in this facility is known to the state of California to contain compounds that cause cancer.”

    And if you are among the people who think that this kind of warning is a good idea, please raise your hand and then stop breathing. You know, so that you don’t get cancer. It really works.

      1. Death, inevitably, follows life.
        Ban life.

  7. Consider that the call by Obama to force companies to put calories on signs is a violation of freedom of the press too, it’s just another product labelling law

  8. Dr. Ian Johnsonis a shill for Big Food.

  9. MORE French-bashing? I thought George War Bush had already renamed French fries Yaller ‘Taters because the frogs were slow to join an anti-Iraqui lynch mob.

  10. Since everything in California causes cancer, the best way to avoid cancer is to stay the hell away from California.

  11. It is a mistake to think that Prop 65 is counterproductive or that it is not accomplishing what it is intended to do. It was always a lawyers’ tool, intended to provide lawsuit opportunities. It has accomplished that goal, and for that reason will never be repealed or in any way relaxed. If anything, we should expect more efforts to strengthen the law and extend its reach.

  12. I think it is irresponsible to dismiss what the PCRM has to say about meat and cancer risk simply because they promote eating a vegan diet for optimal health. Obviously if they feel the evidence shows meat to be carcinogenic, then it would only make sense for them to promote a vegan diet.

    As for the statistics, the numbers the WHO came up with were way below what has been found in several large scale epidemiological studies. For example, in the Adventist Health Study, where low consumers of meat were compared to vegans, the vegan men had .58 the risk of cardiovascular disease, .84 all cancer risk. The EPIC Oxford study found .69 cardio and .81 cancer respectively. So here we have to very large scale well designed epidemiological studies showing dramatically reduced risk of heart disease and a significantly reduced risk of cancers among the vegan population that was studied.

    Of course, those are just two out of many. It’s clear that eating meat increases your risk for obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease and a host of other problems. So yeah, we can simply ignore those findings and just focus on the WHO’s suggested risk factors for cancer, which the author correctly points out amount to a small increase in absolute risk, but to do so is to ignore the mountain other evidence showing just how deadly meat consumption is. Any doctor who suggest people should eat meat is guilty of giving terrible dietary advice.

    1. Meat has no impact on diabetes as it has no carbs. That assumes you dont eat it with pizza or hamburger buns, etc.

      But the rest of what you wrote seems about right.

    2. Problem with “studies” like the ones you cite is they are not scientific.
      The first thing that is needed for a scientific study is to eliminate variables. That cannot be done with humans. Aside from the variations in all the other aspects of their lives, there is the massive role that one’s genetic makeup plays.
      Physiologically, we look to have evolved as omnivores, to ignore that is far from “giving good dietary advice”.

  13. Phony reports deserve phony responses.

  14. Im making over $9k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life. This is what I do,

    ———- http://www.onlinejobs100.com

  15. Research has conclusively shown that if you eat nothing, you will not die of cancer.

  16. It is fearful title: Eat And Die, as a matter of fact it is true and that is what Venus Factor Diet Program teach us.
    Have a great day

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.