carcinogenic processed meatWhen the World Health Organization (WHO) released its report on Monday that cited red meats and processed meats as carcinogenic, it may not have anticipated the global response. Doctors, scientists, the meat industry, and the public have all reacted to this news in different ways. Given the WHO’s decades of research and the implications that its report may have for public health, the legal profession cannot help but become enmeshed in this issue. This article discusses where and how litigators and public health expert witnesses may play a role in public health’s latest drama. 

Discussion:

According the WHO, which conducted its research through the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), processed meats are now considered “carcinogenic to humans,” with red meat deemed “probably carcinogenic.” See, e.g., Alice G. Walton, “Processed Meats Are ‘Carcinogenic To Humans,’ Says WHO,” Forbes Daily, Oct. 28, 2015. This analysis puts processed meats in the same category as cigarettes and asbestos, and the conclusions made were the result of an extensive review of some 800 global studies that spanned several decades and took various diets into account. See Angela Charlton, “UN agency links hot dogs and other processed meat to cancer,” Chicago Tribune, Oct. 27, 2015. Considering that the study links these meats to colon cancer, the consequences are grave: colon cancer is the number 2 killer of women worldwide, and it’s the number 3 killer of men. Id.

The meat industry has responded with some level of predictability, denying the correlation between red/processed meats and cancer and expressing outrage at the WHO’s report. See id., e.g. The potential implications of the WHO’s report, coupled with the possibility of various nations’ doctors and scientists altering their health recommendations to the public, are enormous, and some of those implications may certainly be legal. The question is: who would be suing whom, and the answers are myriad.

Potential lawsuits resulting from the WHO report:

(1). Individual and/or class-action suits against the meat industry: As is the case where any product becomes classified as a carcinogen by a credible national (or in this case, global) organization, litigation often follows suit. When tobacco products were conclusively determined to have serious adverse health effects, countless lawsuits against tobacco manufacturers ensued, and some continue to this day. Similarly, given that the WHO is a part of the United Nations (U.N.) and that the study it released has far-reaching impacts, it is not unlikely for processed and red meat manufacturers to be faced with lawsuits alleging that their products endangered the public health and linking those products to specific instances of cancer. In that type of scenario, scientists, public health experts, doctors, oncologists, and other expert witnesses in the community will be of indispensable value in litigating such suits, regardless of what side a party is on. Manufacturers should retain consulting experts to prepare their defenses in anticipation of such litigation, and any potential plaintiff will need expert testimony to prove causation and damages.

(2). The meat industry versus the WHO: The meat industry has not been idle in the past when public commentary regarding the health of its products has occurred. In the mid to late 1990s, when mad cow disease was a great concern, television personality Oprah Winfrey made allegedly disparaging remarks against the beef industry. After her commentary, beef prices “plunged for nearly two weeks…,eventually reaching a 10-year low. In response, a group of angry cattle ranchers in Texas filed a $10.3 million lawsuit claiming she defamed the entire industry.” M.J. Stephey, “Where’s the Beef?” Time, May 25, 2011. It is certainly not unthinkable that the red/processed meat industry will respond in a similar manner to the WHO report. To wit, the WHO report “could hurt the American meat industry, which is arguing vigorously against linking their products with cancer”. See id. If meat prices drop or the industry is harmed in any way, it may prefer to take legal action, and it has already accused the WHO report of being “a huge and alarmist overreach to some very weak data.” Erik Brady & Gabe Lacques, “Run for your life: Hot dogs linked to cancer,” USA Today, Oct. 26, 2015. Should manufacturers choose to litigate this matter, experts will be invaluable in assessing damages and disproving the correlation between the WHO report’s findings and cancer.

Conclusion:

The issues at play with the WHO report have been mentioned, but the surface has barely been scratched. Dozens of potential parties and types of litigation may arise in response to that study, particularly since the report’s scope was global. Countries with a history of having red/processed meat as national foods may face responsibility as well, and they, in turn, may take aim at the WHO. It remains to be seen how deep the legal fallout is, but, as with any major piece of news of this reach, expert witnesses will play a critical role in interpreting, evaluating, and responding to the WHO’s allegations.

By: Kat S. Hatziavramidis, Attorney-at-Law