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Should Meat Come with Cancer Warning Labels?

Last week, the Center for Science in the Public Interest published a petition to the USDA requesting that processed meat products bear colorectal cancer warning stickers.

Wyatt Marshall

Photo via Flickr user chiefy

Put down that beef jerky for a second.

Last year the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer classified processed meats as possible carcinogens, saying that consumption of 50 grams of processed meat every day increases the risk of colorectal cancer by almost 20 percent.

This was troublesome news for bacon- and Slim Jim-lovers everywhere, and processed meat producers refuted the findings. Italy's prosciutto industry, for one, was pissed.

Now, a little more than a year later, another scientific body is stepping up to the plate to take a swing at processed meat. Last week, citing the WHO's research, the Center for Science in the Public Interest published a petition to the USDA requesting that processed meat products bear colorectal cancer warning stickers.

"In recent years, scientific research has led to the conclusion that processed meat and poultry increases the risk of colorectal cancer, which is the second‐leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, and [is] expected to account for 49,190 deaths in 2016," the petition reads.

Under the guidelines suggested in the petition, meats that are "preserved by smoking, curing, salting, and/or the addition of chemical preservatives" would earn a sticker reading, "USDA WARNING: Frequent consumption of processed meat products may increase your risk of developing cancer of the colon and rectum. To protect your health, limit consumption of such products."

Meat producers were understandably unhappy with the petition.

"An alarmist, sensational petition from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) today seeking warning labels on safe, nutritious and USDA-inspected meat products is the most recent example of the scare tactics that have earned the group the nickname 'the food police,'" Barry Carpenter, President and CEO of the North American Meat Institute President, a trade group representing 95 percent of red meat and 75 percent of turkey products, wrote in a statement. "Scientific evidence shows cancer is a complex disease not caused by single foods and that a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle choices are essential to good health."

READ MORE: Sorry Everyone, Bacon Could Be as Bad For You as Cigarettes

Janet Riley, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs at the North American Meat Institute, told MUNCHIES that "a label such as the one being sought by CSPI would be misleading for a number of reasons."

"A warning label would suggest that compelling science and consensus exists supporting CSPI's position, when this is not the case. In fact, the International Agency for Research on Cancer vote was not unanimous and has been and continues to be quite controversial."

Riley and Carpenter pointed to other studies that refute the link between meat and cancer and highlight the health benefits of eating meat. Both noted that the WHO had to clarify last year that their message from their report was "misinterpreted," and was not intended to make people cut meat from their diets, rather to suggest lowering intake.

As Americans, we do eat a disconcertingly large amount of meat. The petition cites USDA data that says Americans ate an annual average of 71 pounds of red meat and 55 pounds of poultry on average in 2013, with a little more than 20 percent of that coming in processed forms. The WHO's warning is based on consuming 50 grams of processed meat a day—for perspective, a Nathan's hot dog weighs in at 3.5 ounces, or 99.2 grams.

That's potentially bad news for American hero Joey Chestnut, but the rest of us plebs should have a little less to worry about, with or without a warning sticker.