The Physicians Committee for Responsible Nutrition in March petitioned the mayors of 12 cities nationwide to remove processed meats, such as hot dogs and deli meat, from school meals on the basis of the World Health Organization determination that the products are “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
The advocacy group, which promotes a vegan diet, also erected 23 billboards in the cities to warn passersby that “processed meat causes cancer,” and to argue that “cancer causing foods don’t belong in schools.” The billboards include an image of a skull and crossbones made of a sausage patty and hot dogs.
The billboards and petitions concentrated on the top six states with the highest colorectal cancer death rates to drive home the idea that “citizens of colorectal cancer hot spots are facing death by deli meat,” Physicians Committee dietitian Karen Smith said in a statement.
She told FoodNavigator-USA that eating just 50 grams of processed meat – or about the amount of a hot dog – daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer 18 percent, according to the WHO report.
“The risk is real,” she said, noting processed meat is served at school meals at least three times a week and sometimes daily.
“Parents would never want their children smoking cigarettes and the risk of developing cancer from eating processed meat is just as serious. But it doesn’t seem like the WHO message of the risk has been taken seriously enough,” so PCRM wants to raise awareness of the connection, Smith fold FoodNavigator-USA.
NAMI defends meat as nutritious
The North American Meat Institute criticized PCRM’s campaign as “more of the same tired tactics to restrict choice and impose their extreme dieting views on Americans.”
NAMI President and CEO Barry Carpenter added: “We respect parents’ desire to provide their children with the foods that reflect their families’ values. We encourage schools to offer vegetarian options, but we strongly object when a group seeks to deprive other children of their option to access nutritious products they enjoy and deliver abundant nutrients they need.”
Carpenter also sought to reassure consumers about the safety and nutritional benefits of the products attacked by PCRM.
“The sad part in their effort is that it’s aimed at school children, who benefit greatly from the protein, vitamins and minerals that meat and poultry deliver in every serving,” he said, adding “these products are USDA-regulated and inspected and provide vital nutrients such as a complete protein, iron, zinc and B-12, a nutrient found only in animal products.”
Carpenter also argues the WHO research cited by PCRM “was taken badly out of context.” He said that WHO acknowledged “shortcomings” with the classifications of foods and noted WHO advocates for eating a healthy balanced diet.
He further notes “policy should not be built on single studies,” and that “hundreds of peer-reviewed studies affirm the value of meat and poultry in a balanced diet.”
At least one school district in the cities targeted by PCRM has asked for additional information and help swapping out meat from its menus, Smith said.
The group sent tool kits to schools and local governments where the billboards were placed. They included recipes and strategies for replacing meat with plant-based protein and nutrient packed alternatives that are cost effective. Examples include, bean burritos, falafel and vegetarian chili, Smith said, noting PCRM is happy to provide additional guidance and help.