In California, toxic chemicals require warning labels. Now, that law might extend to ‘carcinogenic’ meat products.

I say, go ahead and paste those labels on the foods we all eat.

Even as the furor has died down over the recent report by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer that classified red meat as a carcinogen, a new development has brought the issue right back into the news.

According to a report by McClatchy DC, the panel’s report that eating processed meat increases the risk of cancer could trigger mandatory warning labels to be placed on meat products under California’s Proposition 65.

Prop 65, officially known as The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, was enacted as a ballot initiative intended to protect the state’s water sources from being contaminated with carcinogenic chemicals that could cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive damage. Given the title of the original initiative, it’s understandable why it was approved by the voters.

Who’s opposed to keeping toxic chemical out of the drinking water?

However -- and this is why the industry is now on the hot seat -- the law requires the state to publish an annual list of toxic chemicals, and businesses must inform Californians about exposures to such chemicals with mandatory product labeling.

Since 1987, the agency has added about 800 chemicals to the list, according to McClatchy DC. Once a substance is listed, businesses with 10 or more employees have a year to comply with the labeling requirements.

Since the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, the agency that enforces Proposition 65, relies on the International Agency for Research on Cancer for guidance on what to list and label as carcinogenic, meat processors could be ordered to place a warning label on the products they sell.

Does everything require a warning?

Obviously, industry trade groups and the larger manufacturers would no doubt challenge such a ruling in federal court. The likely approach would be to argue that USDA regulations preempt state laws, and that the department’s seal of inspection takes precedence over a state agency tasked to regulate toxic chemicals, none of which are ever intended to be consumed or used in such a way as to be inhaled or brought in contact with people.

And in this case, even though the IARC technically classified red meat as “probably carcinogenic,” the panel also noted that the cancer risk from eating meat was relatively low, compared with smoking or excessive drinking, and acknowledged that meat has known health benefits.

I’m inclined to believe that requiring labels on ham, bacon and sausage might actually be the best thing to happen to the industry.

Why? Because then the 90% of consumers who regularly purchase and consume those products — and who have done so for the entire lives — would finally see the absurdity of extending a regulation intended to protect people from toxic substances to require slapping a warning on the foods we eat on a daily basis.

Under that rubric, there would be a whole lot of edible substances that would qualify for similar labeling, and that would bring the Prop 65’s unintended consequences into sharp focus.

It’s unclear what the legal outcome of this situation will be, but for anyone truly concerned about any health risks from eating meat, I suggest that they simply follow the recommendation posted on the website of California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, and I quote:

Q: I recently bought a product that came with a Proposition 65 warning. How do I find out more about the warning and the chemicals in the product?

A: To request more information regarding the chemical exposures that are the basis of the warning, contact the manufacturer of the product.”

Good advice. Contact the company that made the meat product you just bought.

They’ll set you straight.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.