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Will meat come with a warning label in California?

A fan eats a hot dog before a June baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and the Houston Astros. The World Health Organization has declared processed meats cause cancer, and that could trigger Proposition 65 warnings in California.
A fan eats a hot dog before a June baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and the Houston Astros. The World Health Organization has declared processed meats cause cancer, and that could trigger Proposition 65 warnings in California. The Associated Press

The World Health Organization has declared that bacon, sausage and other processed meats cause cancer and that red meat “probably” causes cancer.

Now, for Californians and farmers hoping to sell meat in California, the big question is: Will California require meat to come with a warning label?

Proposition 65 requires warning labels on products containing ingredients “known to the state of California to cause cancer or reproductive harm.” Part of the law requires that when major health bodies such as the WHO decide a substance causes cancer, California adds that item to its warning list.

This list has ballooned to nearly 900 substances. Californians can’t visit a coffee shop, gas station or even Disneyland without being warned about cancer threats. But the scary signs don’t actually tell consumers how much risk buying a product with the label really poses.

The law requires the listing of any substance that could cause just one excess case of cancer in 100,000 people over a lifetime. It also requires these warning labels on products even if there’s virtually no way you could come into contact with them, like the chemicals used in the wiring of electronics. In fact, for most products listed under Proposition 65, the risk of health problems is virtually nonexistent.

Not only do Proposition 65 warning labels fail to inform consumers of exposure or risk levels, but they don’t allow retailers to explain a product’s health benefits, which led to lawsuits against makers of canned tuna.

Tuna, like many fish, often contains small amounts of mercury, which is listed as a developmental toxin. California, therefore, tried to require canned tuna to carry a warning label. However, tuna also contains a number of essential nutrients. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration pushed back against labeling because it “could have adverse public health consequences” by discouraging fish consumption.

Ultimately, California’s attorney general lost the court battle on tuna, but meat may not be so lucky.

About 5 percent of all people – and about 6 percent of those who eat the highest amounts of processed and red meats – will develop colorectal cancer at some point in their lives. Having the occasional bacon breakfast isn’t going to influence your risk, and in fact lean meats are an excellent source of essential nutrients such as protein, thiamin, niacin and zinc.

Proposition 65 is in serious need of reform. It’s incredibly difficult and expensive for businesses to prove in court their products don’t contain enough of a listed substance to pose a health risk. So most small and medium-size businesses settle out of court. That’s created a huge incentive for a handful of “bounty hunters” and trial lawyers to file hundreds of lawsuits. Businesses paid a whopping $21 million in plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees last year in Proposition 65 lawsuits.

Attorney General Kamala Harris has proposed a number of common-sense reforms to rein in these bounty hunters. But to truly fix Proposition 65, California must take into account the actual risk a substance poses to consumer health before requiring a label.

Warning Californians everything is going to give them cancer isn’t working. California needs strong, science-based standards to tell consumers which products could pose an actual threat to their health.

Joseph Perrone is chief science officer of the Center for Accountability in Science, affiliated with the Center for Organizational Research and Education, which receives funding from foundations and businesses, including those in the agriculture industry.

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