A US non-profit organization filed a lawsuit on Wednesday asking a New Jersey county court to force food companies to put labels warning of cancer risks on any hot dogs they sell in New Jersey.

Described by the Los Angeles Times (LAT) as a vegan advocacy group, Cancer Project, wants food companies like Oscar Mayer and Hebrew National, big names in the hot dog world, to put labels on their hot dogs warning that eating this product and other processed meats “increases the risk of cancer”.

President of the Cancer Project, Neal Barnard, who is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University medical school in Washington, DC, told LAT that:

“Just as tobacco causes lung cancer, processed meats are linked to colon cancer.”

“Companies that sell hot dogs are well aware of the danger, and their customers deserve the same information,” he added.

The lawsuit, which according to the LAT is seeking class action status, is brought against ConAgra Foods Inc (owners of Hebrew National), Kraft Foods Inc (owners of Oscar Meyer), Sara Lee Corp, Nathan’s Famous Inc, and Marathon Enterprises Inc.

62 per cent of Americans eat some kind of processed pork, says Cancer Project, adding that in 2006, 1.5 billion pounds of hot dogs were consumed in the US, at an average of 32 pounds a year per person.

The group refers to a report from the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund where scientists say there is no safe amount of processed meat that can be eaten, and that just one 50-gram serving of bacon, sausage, deli meats or other processed meats, every day increases a person’s chance of getting colorectal cancer by 21 per cent on average.

Processed and cured meats contain nitrites which are added to help preserve the meat. When ingested, these break down into nitrosamines and other chemicals that are thought to be cancer-causing.

Every year, about 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and about 50,000 Americans are expected to die of the disease in 2009.

However, there are mixed views about the research evidence, with some scientists saying it could be the fat content of the food (most processed meats also tend to have high fat) that is linked to cancer. For instance a Harvard study that pooled data from several studies found no link between red and processed meat and cancer but it did find there was a lower risk of cancer when fish and chicken consumption was higher.

There has been a strong reaction from the food industry and other nutritionists have also been skeptical.

Sydney Lindner, a spokeswoman from Kraft told the press:

“These proposals are unfounded. Hot dogs have been enjoyed by consumers for more than 100 years.”

One nutrionist interviewed by the LAT said that people should be more worried about the food that is usually eaten with the hot dog, such as fat-laden potato, sugary drinks and desserts and macaroni salads.

Others say that while people should be careful about how much meat they eat, the occasional hot dog is not going to do them any harm. And even if it may be true that eating too much of a certain food like processed meat increases a person’s risk of cancer, putting labels on everything will just lead to “warning fatigue“.

The lawsuit follows a campaign earlier this month when Cancer Project sponsored a provocative highway billboard near Busch Stadium in St. Louis on the day that thousands of baseball fans flocked to watch President Obama throw the opening pitch to the 2009 All-Star Game.

The 48-foot wide digital billboard, located on I-70, one mile west of Lindbergh Boulevard, showed a picture of hot dogs jammed in a cigarette pack carrying the label “Unlucky Strikes” and the text: “Warning: Hot Dogs Can Strike You Out — For Good.”

Cancer Project says on its website that they want Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig to put “dietary disaster” warning labels on hot dogs served at Major League Baseball stadiums because, in their words, “processed meats have been convincingly linked to colorectal cancer”.

Cancer Project describes itself as a group of physicians, researchers, and nutritionists who wish to “educate the public about the benefits of a healthy diet for cancer prevention and survival”. The organization is affiliated to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and is based in Washington, DC.

Sources: Los Angeles Times, The Cancer Project.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD