In 2012, Californians considered a proposition that would have required foods containing GMOs to carry labels. That vote failed after scientists opposed it, experts said it would be costly and the proposed label language proved highly confusing. Intense as the debate was, advocates were unable to point to any health threat that might have convinced voters.
This past week, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a research division of the UN’s World Health Organization announced that bacon, sausage and other processed meats cause small increases in cancers and that red meat probably does, too.
So, in spite of the fact that it is not clear what the warning might be–the risk the IARC says it can define is small and associated only with large amounts of consumption–California regulators are considering adding processed meat and red meat to its list of items “known to cause cancer.” The meat industry has vowed to fight any such move, citing federal labeling rules, Reuters reported this week. In fact, it appears there already is some background legislation on the books.
The State’s Proposition 65 requires declaration and labeling of substances known to be carcinogenic, and has done so since 1986. Prop 65 labels have been added to everything from lead-containing ceramics to a sign at the entrance to the Disneyland Resort.
Reuters says meat producers and processors like Hormel Foods and JBS USA would be negatively impacted by Prop 65 labels if they were added to meats, since consumer demand for those products would be expected to fall as a result. Prop 65 labeling requires that producers provide “clear and reasonable” warnings for consumers, Reuters said.
Observers in California say they expect the state to add processed meats to the cancer-causing substance list. Once an item is added to the list, the onus falls on the producer to prove that its product is not dangerous enough to merit a warning label.
Other food companies have run into Prop 65 requirements, including Starbucks Corp. The company is currently fighting a lawsuit filed by a non-profit group seeking to have its coffee labeled as carcinogenic, saying it contains enough of the carcinogenic substance acrylamide to merit such a warning, Reuters reported.
The meat industry argues it will be exempt from Prop 65 labeling and cites a 2009 California appellate court ruling that the federal government maintain sole authority over labels for meat that is federally inspected by USDA.
“Meats will never have to be labeled in the state of California,” Jim Coughlin, of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association told Reuters. However, Coughlin notes that processed meats are still likely to end up getting a Prop 65 listing.
Still, “The state can’t force a label on federally inspected product,” said Janet Riley, president of the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council and a senior vice president at the North American Meat Institute, which says it will file suit should California move forward with attempts to add Prop 65 labels to meats.
Another important ag product, Glyphosate, was added to the probable carcinogen list in March and lawsuits are already being filed against Monsanto Co., who makes the chemical. California regulators said in September that they intend to list glyphosate under Prop 65 as a possible carcinogen but Monsanto is pushing to have the plan withdrawn, arguing the move is illegal in light of a lack of valid scientific evidence.
There are several serious issues in this debate, including whether or not a compound that has the potential to cause few, if any cancers each year, and then only after unusually large levels of consumption, should carry the same warning as one that is associated with large risks for large numbers of consumers. And, there is the question of what possible overuse of such warnings might mean for public health. Will the public be safer if coffee has a “hazard” label? If Bacon does?
This is an old debate that has been around for decades, so it is not likely to be solved in the near future. Since it has the potential to change consumers’ views of the food supply, it is important to the sector and should be watched closely as it proceeds, Washington Insider believes.
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by Justin Marty