Hot dogs, pepperoni and other processed meats are back in the news again as the World Health Organization issued a report linking consumption of these school lunch staples to increased risk of cancer. The study by WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, in the October 2015 issue of The Lancet Oncology, has reopened a debate that goes back years.
Are school lunch programs that routinely serve hot dogs, cold cut sandwiches, and pepperoni pizza putting kids’ health at risk?
Reading the coverage of the new study reminded me that a few months ago, I turned down an opportunity to try to rid school cafeterias of processed meat. It started with the most bizarre phone call I have ever received.
The man on the other end of the line told me he was an attorney (although he did not give his name) and said that he was calling me on behalf of his client (again, no names). I had been suggested (once again, not naming who suggested me – are you sensing a pattern here?) as someone who might be interested in consulting for his client on a potential lawsuit, and Mr. Attorney was calling to assess my level of interest in the project.
I had apparently been selected for consideration because of my work advocating for better food in schools. My website, PEACHSF, is a free resource and how-to guide for anyone who has ever thought, “I wonder if there is a way to get better food in our school cafeteria?”
Mr. Attorney explained that the project was to identify a school district to sue, based on the idea that they were serving unhealthy food to children in the form of hot dogs, pepperoni and processed lunch meats. My role would be to help find a school district worthy of such a lawsuit.
I said I was probably not a good choice as a consultant, because the entire point of my website was to show parents or other interested stakeholders the best ways to work cooperatively with their school or district to improve the food. Bringing a lawsuit against a school district that was serving food meeting USDA regulations for school meal programs is the exact opposite of everything for which I advocate.
Also, the idea was repugnant to me personally, as schools are already chronically underfunded for all that they are expected to provide to students, and this kind of lawsuit smacked more of a publicity stunt than of any real effort to try to improve school food.
I suggested that instead of looking for some school district to harass with a lawsuit, he instead direct his client’s attention to the USDA, provider of commodity meat that schools have processed into hot dogs, pepperoni pizza, and cold cuts, or to Congress, writer of rules for the nation’s school meal programs.
At that point, Mr. Attorney started talking about how his still-unnamed client already had funding in place. The funder was the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a well-known anti-meat group that has been opposing processed meat in school meals for years, but he was clear that PCRM was not the client for whom he worked.
The client’s name, he told me, would be revealed to me only after I had agreed to take on the consultancy position. This was supposedly because the client feared that news about the project might get “leaked” ahead of time and destroy any chance of proceeding with the lawsuit. Presumably, taking on the job would involve signing a non-disclosure agreement.
The idea of agreeing to work for an unnamed client, to help further a project using a strategy that was the opposite of everything I believe in, was a non starter with me.
But, the troubling connection between consuming processed meat and poor health outcomes, as detailed in the WHO report, is an issue that deserves serious scrutiny by those who run school meal programs.
According to the WHO press release, “Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer” [emphasis theirs]. The report also described consumption of red meat as being “probably” carcinogenic to humans.
So should people, including those who plan school meals, be putting processed meat on the table less often?
The battle over that question is likely to rage for some time, with the meat industry and meat lovers disparaging the report, and many health advocates and anti-meat folks trumpeting it, including PCRM, which has launched a website called Drop the Dog, urging schools and hospitals to stop serving processed meat.
Meanwhile, hot dogs remain a staple in school lunches, including in San Francisco, where Revolution Foods’ hot dog lunch has for several years been the most popular of all cafeteria entrees. As many as 1,000 additional SFUSD students have been known to eat school lunch on hot dog day, as compared to any other day.
“Its meats come from humanely raised animals that are bred for flavor and tenderness. They’re never given antibiotics, growth enhancers or added hormones, are fed an entirely vegetarian diet, and are allowed to do what comes naturally — roam freely and behave like, well, animals.”
All of which sounds great – except it fails to mention that Fork in the Road, like so many other “healthier” meat companies, treats their meat with celery juice, a potent source of natural nitrate. Rev Foods also uses meat preserved with celery juice in their Meal Kits (now called Jet Packs).
Is that a problem?
Mariana Stern, PhD, associate professor in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology at USC, worked on the WHO study. She told LA Magazine that what makes processed meat a potential carcinogen is the use of nitrate salts in the processing.
“In the human body, nitrate salts are known to form powerful carcinogens called nitrosamines,” she said.
Dr. Stern was also asked, “Are some processed meats less harmful than others? Companies like Applegate Farms trumpet the use of naturally occurring nitrates in their processed meats—nitrates from celery, for example—over synthetic sodium nitrites in more mass market-oriented cold cuts.”
“We didn’t distinguish between “naturally” processed meats versus more industrial-scale methods—these data were not available to us from the existing epidemiological studies. That said, naturally occurring nitrate salts, such as those found in celery juice, which is used for treating these so-called “natural” processed meats, can react in the body much in the same way as chemically added nitrates. The body may not distinguish between artificially added nitrates and naturally occurring ones. Future studies should examine if the formation of cancer-causing nitrosamines is perhaps lower in naturally treated meats than traditionally treated ones. Until that evidence is out there, we should probably consider these meats just as processed as others.”
In light of this news, should I have been more willing to work with Mr. Attorney and his Client of Mystery? Certainly I don’t support undermining kids’ health with frequent servings of potentially carcinogenic food in school meals.
On the other hand, I will never believe that the most effective way to bring about change in school meal programs nationwide is to target one poor hapless school district somewhere and sue them for doing what everyone else is doing, too.
PCRM has already filed a petition with the USDA asking that agency, which oversees school meal programs nationwide, to stop offering processed meat products to schools as commodities, and to stop reimbursing schools for lunches that include such products.
That petition, like a similar PCRM effort in 2009, may not get anywhere, but at least it is aiming at the right target. Any effort to get processed meat like hot dogs out of school meals need to come from changes at the top of the supply chain, not lawsuits aimed at the bottom.
Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.Soda Tax/Food Politics, Uncategorized