What the state isn’t telling you about processed meat

An advocacy group is urging the state to add carcinogen warnings to processed meats under Proposition 65.
An advocacy group is urging the state to add carcinogen warnings to processed meats under Proposition 65. Associated Press file

When you stroll up to virtually any meat counter in any grocery, the “freshly slaughtered” color of red stares back at you.

But for many of those products, that deep color is a troubling ruse – a fiction maintained only by the addition of nitrates and nitrites.

And a 2015 World Health Organization report has made clear that the chemically induced rosy sheen has an extremely harmful downside: Consumption of processed meat, much of which contains nitrates or nitrites, has been linked to colorectal cancer.

This is not a possibly or a probably, it’s a definitely.

In fact, the evidence of the causal link is equally as strong as for cigarette smoke and asbestos and lung cancer.

A committee of the state Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment is meeting Tuesday to determine whether certain products containing nitrates or nitrites should be labeled as known carcinogens under Proposition 65.

This meeting, six years in the making, was triggered by an analysis completed by the WHO in 2010. There is now even more compelling evidence for regulators to consider: Just last year the WHO made the groundbreaking finding that eating processed meat – whether or not it contains nitrates or nitrites – causes cancer.

If processed meats are a part of your daily diet, the latest evidence should be eye-opening. Every 50-gram portion eaten daily – roughly two slices of bacon – increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent, according to the WHO analysis. That’s not good news in a nation where we consume more than 1 billion pounds of bacon every year.

The same nitrates and nitrites that increase the shelf life of processed meats can also react with other chemicals in the meat, and even in our own stomachs, to produce compounds that have been found to cause cancer in nearly 40 species of animals.

Nitrates and nitrites occur naturally in many things, including many vegetables. The difference is that most vegetables also contain Vitamin C and other antioxidants that prevent the formation of these carcinogenic compounds. Meat, however, contains heme, a component in red blood cells that increases their formation.

Even processed meats that do not contain nitrates or nitrites can pose a cancer risk. Unfortunately, California regulators are still focusing solely on nitrates and nitrites.

Due to the undeniable cancer link and the widespread consumption of these products, the Proposition 65 listing of processed meats in general needs to receive an expedited review.

The stakes are high. It’s one thing for those of us lucky enough to have access to health care to hear a warning from our doctor about the risk of consuming processed meats. But it’s entirely different for every Californian to see the warning on every package of hot dogs, bacon, ham, canned meat, corned beef and other products.

The evidence is undeniable that eating processed meat can increase your risk of cancer. There should be no question that all Californians should be properly warned.

Nathan Donley is a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity’s Environmental Health Program, which has offices in Oakland and Portland, Ore. He can be contacted at

Related stories from Sacramento Bee