Hot Dogs as Issues Management and Risk Communication

August 3, 2009

Many products do carry warning labels including cigarettes, alcohol, and prescription drugs.  The warnings include health risks (cigarettes and alcohol) and side effects (prescription drugs).  But what about a warning label on hot dogs and other processed meat read:  “Warning: Consuming hot dogs and other processed meats increases the risk of cancer.”  The non-profit organization Cancer Project is prosing such warning labels become law thereby initiating an issues management contest when they filed a lawsuit request the labels.  As noted in Chapter 10 on issues management, various groups are involved with an issue because they have something to win and/or something to lose.

The Cancer Project frames their position as public health.  They would consider their actions as social marketing (Chapter 8).  The warning Is sought because of the link between consuming processed meat and some forms of cancer.  As reported in the LA Times:  “‘Just as tobacco causes lung cancer, processed meats are linked to colon cancer,’ says Neal Barnard, president of the Cancer Project and an adjunct professor at the George Washington University medical school in Washington, D.C. ‘Companies that sell hot dogs are well aware of the danger, and their customers deserve the same information,’ he added, reports Times writer Jerry Hirsch,1,2946755.story.

Here is an excerpt from the Cancer Project News Release:

“WASHINGTON—Three New Jersey residents are suing Nathan’s Famous, Kraft Foods/Oscar Mayer, Sara Lee, Con Agra Foods, and Marathon Enterprises for failing to warn consumers that hot dogs increase the danger of colorectal cancer. The action comes in the wake of landmark scientific studies linking hot dogs and similar meats to colon cancer.

The class-action consumer fraud lawsuit, which is being filed July 22 in Superior Court in Essex County, seeks to compel all five companies to place cancer-risk warning labels on hot dog packages sold in New Jersey. The labels would read ‘Warning: Consuming hot dogs and other processed meats increases the risk of cancer.’”

The Cancer Project describes itself as follows:  The Cancer Project is a collaborative effort of physicians, researchers, and nutritionists who have joined together to educate the public about the benefits of a healthy diet for cancer prevention and survival. Based in Washington, D.C., The Cancer Project is an affiliate of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

As you might guess the producers of the products disagree with the Cancer Project.  Here is a sample response:  “These proposals are unfounded. Hot dogs have been enjoyed by consumers for more than 100 years,” said Sydney Lindner, a Kraft spokeswoman (from,1,2946755.story).  The hot dog and sausage industry generated sales of over $3.4 billion in the US in 2008.  So this is a serious issue to the producers. 

The American Meat Institute (AMI), one of the industry groups that represent processed meat, claims that the Cancer Project is pro-vegetarian, animal rights group with nothing more than a nuisance lawsuit.  The Center for Science in the Public Interest (food and drink front groups mentioned in an earlier post) go further by calling the Cancer Project an animal rights groups and the lawsuit as frivolous. (


Scientists feel the link between processed meat and cancer is very complex and warning labels may not be the best course of action.   In other words, there is no agreement on how to address the issue of processed meat being a potential health risk.  However, there is a risk that warrant communication.  Risk communication is the topic of Chapter 11.

Questions to Consider

  1.  Is the Cancer Project really working for the public interest/safety?  Why or why not?
  2. Why should it matter if constituents see the Cancer Project as engaged in social marketing as they attempt to manage the issue?
  3. What is the “real” evidence that connects processes meat to colon cancer?
  4. Are either side making exaggerated claims that could be viewed as unethical?  If yes, provide some examples.
  5. What are the costs to constituents and PR if the claims are exaggerated?
  6. Is the Cancer Project using risk communication is a responsible/ethical manner? 
  7. Does the industry response show respect for constituents and responsible/ethical risk communication?
  8. Who are the various actors in this issue and what is each one’s primary stake in this issues management effort?
  9. What is the role of transparency (Chapter 3) in this case?

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