Vegans Spar with Spokeswoman Over Cancer and Hot Dogs

Sausage spokeswoman defends hotdogs against an "animal rights group"

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*In a conversation with PCRM’s Patrick Sullivan he confirmed that the organization has accepted PETA funding in its past, but does not currently. He said the PCRM did not file a lawsuit against the University of Washington, but rather a federal complaint with the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to look into UW's treatment of ferrets. Sullivan said that the AMA resolutions linked were voted down and though it was brought to the attention of the AMA that there less than 5 percent of the PCRM's members were physicians, Sullivan says that today, of the roughly 100,000 or so members of the PCRM, around 10,000 or 10 percent are physicians. This post has been changed to reflect those changes. We have also corrected a misspelling of the PCRM's president's name.  8.5.2011.

*After speaking to an AMA representative, we have removed a link to a resolution 506 which did not pass--the resolution included the 5% statistic Sullivan has rebuked. 8.8.2011

Players: Susan Levin nutrition educator for the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM); Janet Riley, president of the National Hot Dog and Sausage and Council

The Opening Serve: The PCRM erected a billboard equating sausages to cancer near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway reading: "Hot Dogs Can Wreck Your Health." Pictured were frankfurters in a cigarette pack, with a link to, a website which the PCRM runs. "A hot dog a day could send you to an early grave," writes PCRM nutrition education director Susan Levin in a statement on July 25. "Processed meats like hot dogs can increase your risk for diabetes, heart disease, and various types of cancer. Like cigarettes, hot dogs should come with a warning label that helps racing fans and other consumers understand the health risk."  Levin goes on to say that one 50-gram serving of processed meat (which she states is around the amount in a hot dog) per day increases the risk of colorectal cancer, by 21 percent on average.

The Return Volley:  "This is an absurd claim," Janet Riley, president of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, told CBS News. "Trying to link a food product that has clear nutritional value with a product like cigarettes, which have no redeeming qualities, is inflammatory and alarmist." She told CBS that cancer is a complex issue, but pointed to the group's ulterior agenda. "This is an animal rights group that wants to take away your choices," she said.

In 2009 PCRM President Neal Barnard wrote that the PCRM has accepted funding from PETA and in 2004 The New York Times acknowledged the group's and Barnard's link to PETA. The PCRM Web site promotes vegan and vegetarian diet--the same for, which is advertised on the billboard link. In February of this year they filed a federal complaint against the University of Washington over ferret testing, according to a Seattle Times report.  The American Medical Association cited the PCRM in 2005. Currently the AMA does not have a negative policy concerning the PCRM.

Levin maintains her stance in an interview with Seattle Weekly. "No, we're not making a leap," she said Monday. "You could probably smoke a cigarette a day and be fine. But no doctor is going to recommend it. The real message I want to deliver is that there is no safe amount [of hot dog eating] in terms of risk. If you want to quantify that, fine, but the risk is there."

What They Say They're Fighting About: You and your possible cancer. Levin and the PCRM want to show just how risky eating a hot dog may be, and want to save you from making a cancer-ridden mistake. Riley thinks comparing food with cigarettes is "inflammatory and alarmist."

What They're Really Fighting About: Animal rights and your freedom to choose what to eat. Riley argues that the PCRM is more an animal rights group than they are a cancer prevention group. She argues that they want to take away choices. Based on both PCRM websites, the group endorses a vegan and vegetarian lifestyle and the group's history indicates a strong observance for animal rights.

Who's Winning Now: Riley and hot dogs, frankfurters, sausages, etc. With such an extreme message, the PCRM doesn't take into account the casual hot dog eater who may, when the spirit moves him or her and the grill is fired up, partake in the occasional summer frank--the risk they describe is for someone who eats one 50g hot dog daily. The message may fall on deaf ears. The wrinkles in the PCRM's past also work against their message. Without full disclosure up front, sausage consumers may be turned off, even skeptical when looking at their animal rights connections.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.