Commentary: Killer chicken

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Dr. Michael Greger is a physician on staff at the Humane Society of the United States.

Medical credentials aside, that post alone removes him from any semblance of scientific objectivity and puts him squarely into full-on propaganda mode.

A position confirmed by the titles of his recent blog posts and video clips:

  • Estrogenic Cooked Meat Carcinogens
  • Vegan Men: More Testosterone But Less Cancer
  • Cancer-Proofing Your Body (through a vegan diet, ’case you didn’t know)

That last report focused on Nathan Pritikin’s well-publicized approach to preventing heart disease—which, it should be noted, includes healthy doses of exercise, as well as healthy choices in food.

Which brings us to a discussion of the concept of multivariate causation, or the idea that complex health issues—such as cancer or heart disease—are not traceable to a single source. No one food causes heart attacks, and no single intervention prevents them. Even Greger admits that.

“One of the reasons it’s so difficult to study the relationship between diet and cancer is because many dietary behaviors are associated with non-dietary behaviors,” he posted recently on his site ( “For example, it used to be thought that coffee-drinking caused cancer, because people who drink coffee are more likely to be smokers. Actually, coffee consumption may decrease cancer risk.”

Now it gets interesting.

“That reason is the same reason it’s so difficult to study cancer among meat eaters,” Greger wrote. “Historically, those eating vegetarian have been noted to have lower cancer rates, but maybe it’s just because they exercise more, or smoke less or inhale less diesel fumes because they all own a Prius.”

Right. It’s the car that makes the difference.

“I profiled new data that attempts to control for non-dietary factors by effectively comparing vegetarians only to meat eaters who are as slim as vegetarians, exercise as much, smoke as little, and even eat roughly the same amount of fruits and vegetables,” he continued. “When vegetarians were compared only to healthy meat eaters with healthier diets, researchers still found the incidence of all cancers combined was lower among vegetarians.

The biggest difference between veggies and meat-eaters was in the risk for cancers of the blood and bone marrow, such as non-Hodgkins lymphoma and various types of leukemia. But guess what was the most significant risk factor?

“Chicken consumption appeared the most hazardous,” he wrote, “associated with up to triple the cancer rates for every 50 grams of daily poultry consumption—that’s just a quarter of a chicken breast!”

Why? The good doctor is glad you asked.

“The association between poultry and cancer may be explained by the presence in chicken and turkey flesh . . . of cancer-causing viruses.”

One gigantic problem with that statement, though: The study to which Greger referred involved poultry industry workers, not consumers. Even he acknowledged that any viruses present in poultry are fully destroyed in cooking, and if consumers follow safe handling guidelines and make sure not to contaminate other foods with raw poultry, the risk to chicken eaters is virtually non-existent. But you wouldn’t know that from skimming any of the Greger’s videos or blog posts.

Finally, he prominently refers to one other post, titled, “Poultry and Penis Cancer.”

Gotta give him credit: That headline will definitely get your attention.

Once again, although Greger makes vague references to “even consumers could be exposed to oncogenic viruses in chicken,” this also refers a study of poultry processing plant workers, not people who eat poultry.

Yes, there was a significantly higher risk of dying from penile cancer among poultry workers versus the general population. Disturbing data, but I submit that it has less to do with any (alleged) carcinogenic properties of chicken and more to do with socio-economic factors.

That ought to be of little consolation to poultry industry management, however, because the reason more workers die from penile cancer than the rest of us, I would argue, has to do with health care—and the distinct lack thereof for low-wage workers.

I mean, how do you develop penile cancer and not know it, or not seek early treatment? Because you can’t afford to, that’s why. That’s the only reason why.

The data in the study Greger profiled are an indictment, but not of poultry’s nutritional properties. It’s the low wages and minimal benefits afforded the work force in most processing plants that are at fault.

People aren’t at risk of dying from cancer by eating chicken regularly. And even those who work in poultry plants shouldn’t face any greater risk of dying—not if they’re able to maintain a lifestyle congruent with good dietary practices, regular health care and frequent medical check-ups.

That’s the takeaway from Greger’s ghoulish analysis.

It’s not the chicken that’s the problem. It’s the working conditions for those processing the chicken that causes the problems.

And unlike the presence of viruses in raw poultry, that’s one problem that’s eminently fixable.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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