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Hot dogs should carry a warning label, lawsuit says

The suit, by a group that promotes a meat-free diet, seeks to require cancer-risk labels on processed meats. Nutrition experts say foods that go along with the hot dog may be more dangerous.

July 23, 2009|Jerry Hirsch

"Warning: Consuming hot dogs and other processed meats increases the risk of cancer."

That's the label that a vegan advocacy group wants a New Jersey court to order Oscar Mayer, Hebrew National and other food companies to slap on hot dog packages.

The nonprofit Cancer Project filed a lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of three New Jersey plaintiffs asking the Essex County Superior Court to compel the companies to place cancer-risk warning labels on hot dog packages sold in New Jersey.

"Just as tobacco causes lung cancer, processed meats are linked to colon cancer," said Neal Barnard, president of the Cancer Project and an adjunct professor at the George Washington University medical school in Washington, D.C. "Companies that sell hot dogs are well aware of the danger, and their customers deserve the same information."

The defendants in the lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, include Nathan's Famous Inc., Oscar Mayer owner Kraft Foods Inc., Sara Lee Corp., Marathon Enterprises Inc. and ConAgra Foods Inc., which owns Hebrew National.

Efforts to put warning labels on hot dog packages are "crazy," said Josh Urdang, 27, as he stood in line to buy two franks at Pink's hot dog stand in Hollywood on Tuesday.

"It wouldn't change how many hot dogs I eat. Not at all," said Urdang, an information technology consultant from Hollywood.

His friend Joe Di Lauro, 31, called such a move "overpolicing. . . . At what point do you stop breaking things down? Unless we're going to put a warning label on every single food and say what's bad in it."

Other consumers were skeptical of the Cancer Project's agenda.

"Vegans complaining about hot dogs is like the Amish complaining about gas prices," said Susan Thatcher of Irvine.

Americans spent $3.4 billion buying 730 million packages of hot dogs and sausages in U.S. supermarkets last year, according to the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council.

Nutrition experts say that the science is far more complicated and that slapping warning labels on the staple of baseball games and picnics would not have much effect on public health.

"If one were to call for a 'black label' on frankfurters, where should the warning label end? If we were to evaluate each food for its naturally occurring toxins and eliminate that food, then our food plate would be empty," said Roger Clemens, a nutrition expert at USC's pharmacy school.

The industry is dead set against such warning labels.

"These proposals are unfounded. Hot dogs have been enjoyed by consumers for more than 100 years," said Sydney Lindner, a Kraft spokeswoman.

The Cancer Project is a branch of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group that lobbies against animal research and pitches the adoption of meat-free diets.

In the lawsuit, the Cancer Project cites the role of nitrites, preservatives used in cured and processed meats such as hot dogs, in the development of cancer-forming agents.

During digestion, nitrites break down into nitrosamines and other N-nitroso compounds that are considered carcinogens.

Although some medical studies link red and processed meats to cancer risk, it's not clear whether it is because of the nitrites or other factors such as high fat content.

Said Keith-Thomas Ayoob, a nutritionist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York: "There is speculation that nitrosamines can increase cancer risk when consumed in large amounts and frequently. Occasionally should cause no worry. The stuff people typically have with a hot dog may be a more immediate concern: too many calories from all the fat-laden potato and macaroni salads, sugary drinks and sweet desserts."

An American Institute for Cancer Research report cited in the lawsuit notes that one 50-gram serving of processed meat -- about the amount in one hot dog -- consumed daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer 21% on average. Colorectal cancer kills about 50,000 Americans annually.

But a 2004 analysis by Harvard University researchers of pooled data from 14 studies in North America and Europe did not find a similar link between various red and processed meats and cancer. But they did find that higher consumption of poultry and fish may be associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer.

The lawsuit acknowledges debate over how the consumption of some types of meats leads to greater cancer risk, but it argues that that doesn't negate a need for warnings on hot dogs.

"This situation is similar to the link between the smoking of tobacco products and lung cancer: While all the molecular events linking the smoking of tobacco to the development of lung cancer are not known, the link cannot be disputed," the lawsuit states.

There may be arguments for broader health warnings about red meat consumption, but the bigger risk is of heart disease rather than cancer, said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"Though I favor warning notices in certain circumstances, the overuse of warnings can lead to 'warning fatigue,' " Jacobson said. "Eating hot dogs occasionally is not by itself worrisome."

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

Times staff writer Andrea Chang contributed to this report.

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