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The Real Weinergate: Carcinogenic Hot Dogs in School Lunches
June 28, 2011

Expelled: Processed meats cause cancer. So why do schools feed them to children?

Weiner campaign signs have become collector’s items in Nashville, Tenn. But the signs don’t even belong to former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner—they’re signs promoting a city council candidate with the same last name. That’s how obsessed America has become with this scandal.

I wish people would focus even a fraction of this attention on the real Weinergate. As a nutrition researcher, I find it shocking that in some schools across the country, kids are still offered hot dogs or other processed meats at nearly every meal.

It’s not hard to understand why school lunch lines are full of this stuff. Processed meats are cheap and easy to serve. But they pose a major problem: They increase cancer risk.

Indeed, hot dogs and other processed meats are so strongly linked to colorectal cancer that no one should ever eat them, says a recent report from the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). This report is the most comprehensive ever conducted on colorectal cancer risk—and it highlights the urgent need to stop serving processed meats in the school lunch line.

Despite the conclusive findings of this landmark study, there were only a few meager news stories about it. I find myself wondering how different our chronic disease rates might be if we paid as much attention to health and nutrition as we do to political scandals.

In 2007, the same two organizations released another major report showing convincing evidence that red and processed meat increased colorectal cancer risk. But that wasn’t enough for the federal government. The U.S. Department of Agriculture rejected an appeal from our organization to remove hot dogs, the deli slices often used to make turkey and ham sandwiches, and other processed meats from school meals and other nutrition programs.

But it’s time to face the facts and protect our kids.

The evidence is now overwhelming. This new report adds findings from 10 new cohort studies to the 14 such studies included in the 2007 report. Based on these findings, the AICR and WCRF suggest that everyone reduce their red meat intake and completely cut processed meats out of their diets.

The report authors also upgraded the protective effects of fiber from “probable” to “convincing” and suggest that people consume more high-fiber foods—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the world. The report’s authors found that 45 percent of all colorectal cancer cases could be prevented if we ate more plant foods and less meat and made other lifestyle changes. That’s more than 60,000 cases each year just in the United States.

When we have conclusive evidence that a product significantly increases the risk of a deadly disease, we should do all we can to avoid it—and we definitely should not feed it to children.

Unfortunately, in some schools, many of the meals served include processed meats—lunch lines are often full of pepperoni pizza, hot dogs, and turkey sandwiches. Just when young people are developing eating habits they will carry with them for the rest of their lives, we are stacking the deck against them.

Many cash-strapped food service directors who would prefer not to serve these unhealthful foods are pushed to do so because they are so cheap. That’s partly because the U.S. Department of Agriculture includes processed meat products among the commodity foods distributed to schools participating in the National School Lunch Program and the National School Breakfast Program.

That should end. And the government should help schools get processed meats out of lunch lines completely.

With this new report, there is no excuse for continuing to feed processed meat to children. It’s time to end the real Weinergate. Let’s cut the bologna and put healthier options on the table.


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