Monday, October 26, 2015

On two news stories about food and vegetarianism

There have been a few popular stories recently that have implications for vegetarianism and/or veganism. I will briefly talk about the story of finding animal meat and human DNA (?!) in vegetarian hotdogs, and then spend slightly more time with the WHO reclassifies processed meat as causing cancer.

First up, there has been a report a large number of vegetarian hotdogs had meat or human DNA in them. As the story from The Atlantic put it:
Around 3 percent of the samples found pork where it shouldn’t have been, most often in meats labeled as chicken or turkey, and around 10 percent of the vegetarian products contained meat. Vegetarian products seemed to have the most problems across the board: Four of the 21 vegetarian samples had hygienic issues (accounting for two-thirds of the hygienic issues found in the report), and many vegetarian labels exaggerated the protein content by up to 2.5 times the actual amount.
That seems, well, disconcerting. I posted that to my facebook, and then went looking for data within the original study. I honestly had (and have) no clue what hygienic issues even means, and wanted to know what brands they found animal meat in. So, here is the take away before I get any further in: Whether this all turns out to be true, this is not science. This is a PR viral marketing scheme for a kickstarter and general fundraising. If you go to their hotdog report, you will find fun graphics, and basically no useful details. You can't find out what brands they tested. You won't find answers to unhygienic means. Their process, and it seems the data itself, are proprietary. At this point there is no way to test or verify their claims. So, that's what we have. It may turn out to be totally true (and disgusting!), but at this point, no use paying it a lot of attention. It is interesting to think of the way that viral PR and link bait generating headlines fulfill each others goals. So that even ostensibly serious news websites, like The Atlantic, can post an article without any serious reporting or discussions with experts. Just like Clear Labs is not really engaging in science, I don't think we can call writing up a press release for a company counts as journalism.

The second major story concerns the WHO, process meats, and cancer. The WHO recently has determined processed meats (meaning things like ham, pepperoni, bacon, etc.) definitely can cause cancer, and moved them into Group 1, as this graphic explains.

But as this longer post from CRUK (from which I got that infographic) explains, this is "hazard identification’, not ‘risk assessment’." Meaning, "these groups show how confident IARC is that red and processed meat cause cancer, not how much cancer they cause." So, for example, both smoking and processed meats will definitely cause cancer in some cases, smoking is super way more likely to cause more incidents of cancer for people. Now, this change is all over vegan social media. I have mixed feelings about all of that. First, there really isn't a strong argument here even for vegetarianism. Chicken probably doesn't increase the risk of cancer, and I'm not sure that shifting people from eating hotdogs to turkey dogs is something to celebrate? Also, while lots of people consume processed meats, it is mostly consumed by poorer populations. So, really, this becomes another example of poor populations in overdeveloped nations being hit by health impacts. But I do believe this provides evidence for something else: The need to create public policy to move us away from consuming land-based mammals. Outside of the ethics, or the need for justice for other animals (positions I believe I have a clear record on), there is a totally speciesist need to change our food chain. From global warming, to desertification and deforestation, to poisoning water tables, to food borne illness, and now to causing cancer, we cannot sustain a system that depends so heavily on rearing and eating land-based mammals. But here is the rub! The same global system of disavowal and forgetting that keeps us from confronting the ethics of what we do to other animals in general will immunize us from the policy needs for shifting our food chain. So even though there is a totally speciesist reason for moving away from eating land-based mammals, and even though we could probably do that while maintaining high levels of eating poultry and fish, it will be our very speciesism that keeps us from taking on those policy implications.