Back in 2015, a body of experts convened by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), found—after looking at over 800 studies—that processed meat is "carcinogenic." Unsurprisingly, meat industry trade associations like the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the North American Meat Institute were quick to pan the finding, and claim that it "defies common sense."
But now, a year and a half after the controversial report was released, a non-profit advocacy group is using the IARC report as the basis for two lawsuits against the Los Angeles and Poway, California school districts. Last Wednesday, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine—which promotes a vegan, plant-based diet—filed the lawsuits, which claim that serving processed meat to students violates the California education code's requirement that all food served have the "greatest nutritional value possible" and be of the "highest quality."
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Processed meat—typically beef or pork, but also poultry—is defined as meat that is salted, cured, fermented, smoked or otherwise processed, including bacon, sausages, and hot dogs. The 2015 IARC report deemed it a Group 1 risk, meaning that it has been identified as carcinogenic. The study made that determination based on what it called "sufficient evidence from epidemiological studies that eating processed meat causes colorectal cancer."
Dr. Neal Barnard, founder and president of PCRM, likened the fight to that against the cigarette companies. He told MUNCHIES, "A generation ago, America tackled tobacco. It took time and a lot of arm-twisting, but eventually cigarettes were banned from airports, restaurants, hospitals, and even the teachers' lounge in every school in the country. Today, the issue is food."
Barnard said that a lawsuit was not the group's first choice. "In California," he explained, "we asked schools politely to consider changing their menus to protect children's health. They ignored the request. So we're asking the court for [sic] push them to clean up the kitchen. They can do it, and the students will be better off." Specifically, Barnard said he would like to see more vegetarian options offered in California's schools: "If a school wants to serve sausage, it can serve veggie sausage—or veggie bacon, veggie hot dogs, or other foods that have all the taste and none of the risks."
Los Angeles district teacher Jennifer Mack is a named plaintiff in the lawsuits, alongside Tracy Childs and Steven Sarnoff, parents who have two children enrolled in the Poway Unified School District. Childs says, "As parents, we want what's best for our kids. Providing healthy school meals is a no brainer. Not only do healthful foods help students learn and focus in the classroom today, but they can protect our children's future health."
In addition to the 2015 report issued by the IARC, the lawsuits cite a 2009 National Institutes of Health study, which looked at more than a half-million people and found that processed meat increases the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, as well as a National Cancer Institute study released this August. The NCI study concluded that young adults living today have double and quadruple the risk of colon and rectal cancers, respectively, in comparison those born in the 50s.
The Los Angeles Unified School District told MUNCHIES "Our legal team has not officially received the claim. When/if we do, we will review accordingly." A spokesperson for the Poway Unified School District provided MUNCHIES with the following statement: "The Poway Unified School District received the original complaint by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in April 2016. The District investigated this complaint, and found that it is not in violation of Education Code or the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA). This was supported by the California Department of Education when in October 2016, the CDE denied the complainant's appeal. It is unfortunate the complainants decided to file suit, forcing the District to divert valuable funds from the education of our students to more legal costs. Those who do not want to eat meat, whether processed or not, are given a choice of foods, and thus are not required to purchase processed meats offered during mealtime."
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Janet Riley, senior VP of public affairs for the North American Meat Institute, called the lawsuit a "publicity student to attack foods. . . that people choose, enjoy, and that are good for them." She told MUNCHIES that the IARC/WHO report has been "widely critiqued" and that the IARC itself made "follow-up statements, which said, in part, that 'The latest IARC review does not ask people to stop eating processed meats.'"
In fact, in summing up its findings back in 2015, the IARC couched its recommendations as follows. The organization said, "Eating meat has known health benefits" but "many national health recommendations advise people to limit intake of processed meat and red meat, which are linked to increased risks of death from heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses." With respect to how much meat should be consumed, the IARC said, "The risk increases with the amount of meat consumed, but the data available for evaluation did not permit a conclusion about whether a safe level exists." In answer to the question, "Should we be vegetarians?" the IARC said, "Vegetarian diets and diets that include meat have different advantages and disadvantages for health. However, this evaluation did not directly compare health risks in vegetarians and people who eat meat. That type of comparison is difficult because these groups can be different in other ways besides their consumption of meat."
Still, the report deemed red meat "probably carcinogenic" and processed meat "carcinogenic."
Will processed meat survive its day in court, or will cafeteria hot dogs become a thing of the past? We'll all just have to stay tuned to find out.