Prop 65: Add Processed Meat To Cancer List, Say NGOs & Plant-Based Meat Firms

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NGOs and plant-based companies are now pushing for processed meat, a classified carcinogen under World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, to be included in California’s Proposition 65 list of substances known to cause cancer or reproductive harm. After a five-year petition, the Superior Court of California has ordered the state to provide an answer and is allowing the case to proceed. 

Back in 2015, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a nonprofit promoting plant-based diets and alternatives for animal research, lodged a petition to call on California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) to add processed meat to the Prop 65 list. It would bring the list in alignment with existing guidelines provided by the WHO, which classifies processed meat as carcinogenic to humans, based on “sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer”. 

After five years of no action from the OEHHA, PCRM went ahead to file a lawsuit in March 2020 to compel Governor Gavin Newsom to add processed meat to Prop 65. The OEHHA has insisted that processed meat does not qualify on the list because it is not a single chemical, and adding a “poorly-defined category” of all processed meat products into the list would “result in an over-inclusive warning.” ​

Prop 65 requires listed products to include health warnings on labels, providing consumers with information of the harmful substance it contains and that the said substance is known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm. Among some of the existing substances on Prop 65 include carbon monoxide, Chinese-style salted fish, and vinyl chloride, a chemical used to produce the synthetic plastic polymer PVC. 

Source: OEHHA

Now, the Superior Court of California in Sacramento has rejected the challenge the OEHHA has brought against the legal sufficiency of PCRM’s petition, allowing the case to go ahead and a decision to be made about whether processed meat should be added to the list. 

“The demurrer is overruled. Respondent shall answer the petition within 10 days,” said the court ruling on May 28

Commenting on the court order, VP of legal affairs at PCRM, Mark Kennedy, told FoodNavigator that after many years asking California to take action on the issue, the “state must stop stalling and allow this case, which could help protect Californians from certain cancers, to proceed.”​

Plantcraft, a newly launched plant-based clean label startup developing alternatives to many of the unhealthy processed meats on the market, starting with a range of pâté, has come to support the Superior Court’s decision to allow the case to go ahead, and is urging Governor Newsom to add processed meat to Prop 65 as soon as possible to protect consumers.

In a letter addressed to Governor Newsom, California health and human services secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly and environmental protection secretary Jared Blumenfeld, Plantcraft’s director of marketing Jonny Hochschild wrote: “I am writing to express my deep concerns that allowing companies to hide the true risks of their products is exacerbating our diet-related public health crisis.”

PlantCraft makes plant-based alternatives to processed meat like pâté. (Image: Plantcraft)

Citing the 2015 International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) meta-analysis that “unequivocally links the consumption of processed meats such as deli slices, bacon, and hot dogs with increased risks of colorectal, breast, prostate and pancreatic cancers, as well as overall cancer mortality,” the letter went onto criticise the state for failing to protect consumers from food-related harms, while many other consumer products across household goods, electronic appliances and other sectors are listed. 

“[I] am deeply frustrated that this same care for our health hasn’t extended to the foods we are ingesting which can pose some of the greatest dangers,” wrote Hochschild. 

“In fact, it is my belief that not requiring processed meat companies to disclose the problems with their products could lead to consumer confusion and the belief that these dangers do not in fact exist because consumers have come to rely upon Prop 65 to guide their purchasing decisions.” 

The plant-based meat startup also noted that not listing processed meat under Prop 65 could “unfairly harm” businesses providing healthier alternatives, while “others in the marketplace are allowed to deceive consumers in this manner”. 

Lead image courtesy of Unsplash.


  • Sally Ho

    Sally Ho is Green Queen's former resident writer and lead reporter. Passionate about the environment, social issues and health, she is always looking into the latest climate stories in Hong Kong and beyond. A long-time vegan, she also hopes to promote healthy and plant-based lifestyle choices in Asia. Sally has a background in Politics and International Relations from her studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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