Mindful of the nation's concern with its collective waistline, fast food restaurants have in recent years sought to entice a more health-conscious group of customers through their front doors. Along with salads and fruit parfaits, almost every fast-food menu contains that staple of relatively healthful eating: grilled chicken.
Alas, grilled bird might pose a menacing risk of its own, according to a lawsuit filed in Hartford, Connecticut on Wednesday. The class action complaint, brought by the nonprofit Cancer Project on behalf of two Connecticut residents, alleges that McDonald's, Burger King, and Friendly's knowingly sold grilled chicken containing "substantial levels" of PhIP, a known carcinogen.
Daniel Kinburn, a Cancer Project lawyer, says that "Dozens of studies show even relatively small amounts of PhIP can increase the risk of various forms of cancer." McDonald's, Burger King, and Friendly's disagree; spokespeople for all three companies say that there is no evidence that small amounts of PhIP pose any appreciable risk.
The Cancer Project, based in Washington, D.C., focuses on preventing cancer and extending longevity in cancer survivors by promoting healthy lifestyles.
The complaint alleges not only that the defendants knew the chicken contained PhIP, but that they actively concealed this fact to prevent chicken sales from plummeting. The companies "concealed the presence of a known carcinogen in their grilled-chicken products to retain profits that would be lost, in whole or in part, as a result of properly informed consumers choosing other food products."
Maybe, but it's unclear which foods properly informed consumers would choose, at least if they still had to eat fast food. Even without considering the meteoric calorie levels and fat content of most fast food products, lately it seems that certain doom lurks around every greasy corner. Last month, a Chicago man sued Denny's, accusing the diner chain of hiding the fact that some of its foods contain sodium levels four times the recommended daily dosage. (Never mind that Denny's posts all nutrition information, including sodium content, right on its Web site.)
In July, the Cancer Project filed a suit in New Jersey demanding that hot dogs carry warnings similar to those found on cigarette packages. That suit cited clinical findings that two ounces of processed meat -- the amount in a typical hot dog -- increases the risk of colorectal cancer by a full 21 percent. The Cancer Project wants hot dogs labeled with a warning that "consuming hot dogs and other processed meats increases the risk of cancer."
The Cancer Project may end up seeking a similar remedy in this case. Kinburn said that, rather than preventing the sale of grilled chicken, his organization thinks the product "should be sold with a warning, like a chainsaw." Burger King already settled a similar suit in California, agreeing to post warnings in all restaurants in that state.
With all this talk of cancer, perhaps consumers should stick with a Big Mac? Maybe, but remember that the number one cause of death in America is heart disease, exacerbated by poor diet and inactivity. A recent study found that annual medical expenditures related to obesity have doubled in less than a decade, and might be as high as $147 billion every year.
And ground beef poses its own, uniquely terrifying risks: hamburger meat remains susceptible to E. Coli infection, which can be fatal. A recent New York Times expose detailed the struggle of a young dance instructor paralyzed by infected beef, and suggested that food inspection processes aren't much better than they were when The Jungle was published over 100 years ago.
So while statements like, "Even a grilled-chicken salad increases the risk of developing some cancers," -- offered by Cancer Group President Neal Barnard -- might be true (or they might not), the same can be said of a lot of things. It's very hard to live a normal life when you're constantly calculating the odds that today's lunch will land you in your deathbed. Consumers' best bet is to examine their diet as a whole, and consistently make the healthiest choices available to them.
Besides, we've heard that excessive worrying can lead to hypertension, which in turn can cause heart disease. So don't lose too much sleep over that grilled chicken sandwich.