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American Cancer Society Must End Beef-Promoting Cattle Barons’ Ball

By Jina Shah, M.D.

This piece was published Oct. 15, 2003, in the Atlanta Journal Constitution under the headline "Cancer Group Should Steer Clear of Beef."

What if a major cancer organization decided to raise money by sponsoring a smoke-a-thon? It’s a simple (if appalling) idea: Donors would come to a gathering at which they would smoke as many cigarettes as possible—all to raise funds to fight the very disease their tobacco habit was causing.

Sounds too bizarre to ever happen, doesn’t it? But the American Cancer Society has done something just as contradictory here in Atlanta.

On Oct. 11, the ACS collaborated with the owners of the Buckhead Beef Company to sponsor the Cattle Barons’ Ball. It was a first for Atlanta, though the organization holds similar events around the country. The ball featured pig races and such “ranch-style cuisine” as beef tenderloin donated by Outback Steakhouse. The ACS was even organizing a cattle drive to coincide with the ball, though that was eventually canceled.

As an epidemiologist, I feel compelled to point out the glaring contradiction here. For decades, scientific journals have published a steady stream of studies demonstrating that meat consumption dramatically increases the risk of various types of cancer.

As long ago as 1982, the National Research Council linked dietary habits—particularly the ingestion of such fatty foods as beef—to cancer of the breast and other organs. Since then, Harvard studies that included tens of thousands of people have shown that eating meat regularly increases colon cancer risk 200 to 300 percent.

New research has underscored the link between breast cancer and meat consumption. The Journal of the National Cancer Institute recently reported that the rate of breast cancer among premenopausal women who ate the most animal (but not vegetable) fat was a third higher than that of women who ate the least animal fat.

Since 1991, the National Cancer Institute and other partners have also been promoting the 5 A Day program, which advocates eating five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables to prevent cancer and other chronic disease (

All these facts are well known to ACS officials. Indeed, the organization itself often points out the link between eating meat and getting cancer. For example, ACS’s “Cancer Facts & Figures 2003” puts it this way: “Many epidemiologic studies have shown that populations that eat diets high in vegetables and fruit and low in animal fat, meat, and/or calories have reduced risk of some of the most common cancers.” According to the same report, “the best advice is to emphasize whole foods and the consumption of a mostly plant-based diet.”

Given that evidence, it is deeply troubling to see the organization raising money by promoting beef.

Charity events allow people to feel good about contributing to a cause. That’s wonderful. But wouldn’t a gala organized around peaches be just as fun and much more appropriate?

The need for money is also no defense. The Cattle Barons’ Ball events may be a cash cow for ACS, but promoting unhealthy diets will cost us all dearly in medical bills and personal tragedy. Here in Georgia, the ACS says we should expect more than 33,000 new cases of cancer this year. Nationwide, cancer will kill about 1,500 people a day in 2003, and at least one-third of these deaths will be due to dietary factors.

Such numbers leave the ACS to confront one basic question: How can Americans be expected to change their unhealthy dining habits if cancer society officials can’t change theirs?

Jina Shah, M.D., MPH, is a family physician and epidemiologist currently working in the field of public health in Atlanta. She is a member of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


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