They may be a cherished childhood comfort food, but a national physicians group says hot dogs have no place on the menu at Boston Children’s Hospital.
A doctors group that promotes vegan and vegetarian diets is pressuring the renowned Harvard teaching hospital to stop serving hot dogs to young patients, citing choking danger and the long-term risk of colon cancer. The World Health Organization has classified hot dogs and other processed meat as the highest level carcinogen.
The doctors group has taken its appeal to residents of Boston — a city with the fourth-highest hot dog consumption in the country, according to meat industry lobbyists.
Two large billboards went up this week near Boston Logan International Airport, paid for by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, based in Washington, D.C. In the advertisement, a sad-looking young girl inside a hospital holds a hot dog in a fluffy bun alongside the message: “Ask your local hospital to protect patients from #Hazardous Hotdogs!”
The billboards do not name Boston Children’s Hospital, but the group’s current national campaign is focused on pediatric facilities.
“Hospitals are here to treat people and cure them from illness,’’ said Dr. Margaret Peppercorn, a Harvard Medical School graduate and retired Massachusetts pediatrician who volunteers for the group. “It makes no sense for them to be promoting unhealthy life styles.’’
Some hospitals in Boston, including Tufts Medical Center, and others across the country have removed hot dogs from their menus over health concerns, but Boston Children’s Hospital said Wednesday that the Fenway Park favorite stays.
“When we do serve meat, we make it a priority to serve natural, antibiotic-free and/or grass-fed meat options,’’ hospital spokeswoman Kristen Dattoli said in an e-mail. “When it comes to hot dogs, we serve all natural and uncured meat.’’
Staff members cut hot dogs into small pieces for toddlers to reduce choking risk, she added.
Eric Mittenthal, president of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, based in Washington, D.C., called the group’s campaign a scare stunt from a pseudo-medical animal rights group. But the organization of 12,000 physicians is far from alone in its health concerns about hot dogs and other processed meat, meaning meat that has been preserved or flavored through salting, fermenting, smoking, or curing.
The American Medical Association, which represents the nation’s doctors, and the American College of Cardiology have called on hospitals to remove processed meats from their menus. The Physicians Committee also cites research linking hot dogs and other processed meats to cancer, particularly a report by the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Research Fund last year concluding that hot dogs, bacon, and other processed meats, when consumed regularly, increase the risk of colon cancer.
Another report from WHO’s cancer arm found similar results. Twenty-two experts from 10 countries reviewed more than 800 studies, finding that eating 50 grams of processed meat — the equivalent of one hot dog or four strips of bacon — every day increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent, according to the American Cancer Society, which summarized the research.
“This food is a carcinogen,’’ said Susan Levin, director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee. “Is it appropriate to serve this in a hospital? Is it appropriate to serve this to children in a hospital? We don't think so.’’
She said it’s unclear whether serving all natural or uncured hot dogs eliminates health concerns.
Mittenthal, the head of the meat lobbying group, argued that Physician’s Committee’s take is not the entire story. He said hot dogs contain nutrients, such as iron, zinc, the B vitamins, and protein.
Even the World Health Organization did not ask people to stop eating processed meats, he said, adding that they can be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet.
Levin, of the Physicians Committee, appealed to Boston Public Health Commission executive director Monica Valdes Lupi, requesting in an e-mailed letter that Lupi advise Boston’s Children’s Hospital to drop hot dogs from its menu. Commission spokesman Robert Goldstein said the agency has no plans to regulate food service in Boston hospitals at this time.
Kelly Kane, director of clinical nutrition at Tufts Medical Center, said staff members have always been concerned about choking danger from cut-up hot dogs, but decided to stop serving them last year when the cancer risk became clearer.
Kane said even if hospitals serve hot dogs that are minimally processed and perhaps healthier, patients may interpret that as an endorsement of hot dogs generally.
“They say the hospital gave me this food, so it must be OK,” she said.
Still, she acknowledged, it’s a balancing act.
“When you are dealing with people not feeling well, the bigger concern is you want them to eat something. You want to make sure they are not losing weight.’’
Eric Rimm, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, said there is no question that eating processed meat is dangerous. However, he pointed out, so is drinking alcohol.
“It’s not one single hot dog or one single beer,” Rimm said. “The issue is, is this part of your regular lifestyle?’’
But, he said, habits change slowly. According to the lobbying group, Boston trails only Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia in hot dog consumption. During peak hot dog season, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Americans eat 7 billion hot dogs.
That’s 818 hot dogs every second during the summer, the group said.
Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.