Precaution and cancer – the art of the possible?

by Steve Bjerklie
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Did Otto von Bismarck really say, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them made”? Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations says no, he didn’t, but that hasn’t stopped popular culture from assigning the 19th century Prussian prime minister expertise in both politics and meat processing. Certainly the industry has been fighting long and hard against the popular perception that the ingredients in sausage and other processed products are bizarre, or worse. When the consumer activist Ralph Nader described hot dogs as “missiles of death” in the early 1980s – yes, he really did say that – he was only being glib about something a lot of American consumers had become increasingly uneasy about. Most Americans, and the meat industry too, easily accept that eating too much meat isn’t healthy, but could eating any amount of meat, especially processed products, also be unhealthy? Fat is one thing — but does meat cause, say, cancer?

Last May the U.S. government issued a report that received inexplicably little notice in the press, yet it could deeply influence not just food sales but food manufacture, including meat packing and processing, in the U.S. for decades to come. Titled “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now,” the report, put together by the President’s Cancer Panel, which meets under the direction of the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, is a shot from heavy artillery at the heart of the U.S.’s consumer products industry – and most especially at its food industry.

“In 2009 alone, approximately 1.5 million American men, women, and children were diagnosed with cancer, and 562,000 died from the disease. With the growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures to cancer, the public is becoming increasingly aware of the unacceptable burden of cancer resulting from environmental and occupational exposures that could have been prevented through appropriate national action,” the panel’s co-chairs, Drs. LaSalle Lefall and Margaret Kripke, wrote in a cover letter to President Obama, dated May 6, when the report was issued. “With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread… The panel urges you most strongly to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our Nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”

Many of those 80,000 chemicals are found in foods, including meat. The panel all but endorsed organic foods as a healthy alternative to conventionally processed foods. “[E]xposure to antibiotics, growth hormones, and toxic run-off from livestock feed lots can be minimized by eating free-range meat raised without these medications,” the report stated. Moreover, the panel scolded industry for overly influencing regulatory policy. The result, according to the report is regulatory “dysfunction and a lack of will to identify and remove hazards.”

Faced with such scorching words, the meat industry chose to duck for cover, saying nothing on the record in response to the report’s release. The American Cancer Society actually found the report to be a little extreme, calling its perspective “unbalanced” and suggesting that some of the report’s findings are not supported by scientific consensus. (Unsurprisingly, the organic foods business loved the report – the Organic Trade Association said it was “gratified to see a prestigious scientific panel recognize what the organic farmers and the organic community have realized about environmental health and organic agriculture for decades…”)

The thing is, the President’s Cancer Panel is not the invention of some liberal think tank or consumer organization. It dates back to 1971; then-President Nixon called for its formation when he announced that the federal government would wage a new “war on cancer.” And while the report’s language suggests authorship by firebrand activists, the panel has always been non-partisan – in fact, both LeFall and Kripke were appointed by President Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.

Perhaps most significantly, the panel and the report strongly urge the U.S. to adopt the precautionary principle that influences chemical and ingredient regulation in much of the rest of the world, including Europe. The principle is based on four basic tenets: Taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty; shifting the burden of proof to proponents of an activity; exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions; and including public participation in decision making.

“A precautionary, prevention-oriented approach should replace current regulatory approaches to environmental contaminants in which human harm must be proven before action is taken to reduce or eliminate exposure,” the panel recommends. “Though not applicable in every instance, this approach should be the cornerstone of a new national cancer strategy that emphasizes primary prevention…”

The meat and food industries in the U.S. have long opposed the precautionary principle on grounds that it is, basically, a system of guilty until proven innocent. Many potentially useful chemicals and ingredients could be banned from use because of mere suspicion, the industries claim. And how would the precautionary principle apply to an ingredient such as nitrite in sausage, which has been shown to be carcinogenic in mice when consumed at thousands of times the dose one would receive from eating a hot dog or two and which is also a proven preventive for botulism and other spoilage dangers? The industry worries it could lose the use of ingredients that are tools for food safety. At the same time, the precautionary principle hasn’t stopped the production of processed foods and meats in Europe or elsewhere.

Here’s something Bismarck did say: “Politics is the art of the possible.” How the industry ultimately responds to the President’s Cancer Panel report and, more important, how consumers and the regulatory agencies ultimately respond, remains to be seen. But this much can be said with utmost confidence now: politics will figure in the outcome. Whether the politics will emphasize the possible or impossible, that’s not known yet either.
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