BOSTON — Hot dogs rank high on the list of New England favorites, to the point that Boston breaks the Top 5 for cities that eat the most, but a physicians group wants the staple banished from the menus of local children’s hospitals.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit group of about 12,000 doctors who advocate for plant-based diets, says hot dogs shouldn't be served to pediatric patients because they are a top choking risk for children, and are among foods that increase the risk of colorectal cancer.
The group says a recent survey of Massachusetts hospitals revealed at least three top — Boston Children's Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, and the Dana-Farber Boston Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders Center — offer hot dogs for patients and visitors.
The group’s representatives say they plan to file a formal complaint with the Boston Public Health Commission asking the agency to advise Boston Children's Hospital to drop dogs from its menu.
"It just seems crazy that they would be serving a food that has shown to be unhealthy," said Dr. Marge Peppercorn, a retired pediatrician from Sudbury and spokeswoman for the physicians committee. "If you're an institution concerned with promoting health, it doesn't make sense to turn around and feed things to children that you know are unhealthy."
As part of a public health campaign, the group this week put up billboards around Greater Boston that feature a little girl standing in a hospital hallway holding a hot dog, with the words:” "Choking Risk Now, Cancer Risk Later?"
The billboards urge people to "Ask your local hospital to protect patients from #HazardousHotDogs! www.MakeHospitalsHealthy.org."
A spokeswoman for Boston Children's Hospital didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. A Mass. General spokesman said while hot dogs are sold in the cafeteria, along with healthier fare, they are not on inpatient menus for children or adults.
'Part of a healthy diet'
Not surprisingly, meat producers are blasting the physician group's ad campaign as "pseudo-science" that ignores the health benefits of hot dogs.
"The billboards are yet another scare stunt from the pseudo-medical animal rights group PCRM to attack nutrient-dense foods that Americans regularly enjoy as part of a healthy balanced diet," said Eric Mittenthal, president of the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council.
"Like all meats, hot dogs contribute a wide array of nutrients, such as iron, zinc, the B vitamins and complete protein with all the amino acids needed for health," he added.
To be sure, the Physicians Committee supports "plant-based diets" and has funded similar public education campaigns targeting bacon, sausages and other processed meats.
The group says the campaign has been successful in convincing hospitals elsewhere — including Riley Hospital for Children in Indiana, Arkansas Children’s Hospital and the University of Mississippi Medical Center — to stop serving hot dogs.
The physicians committee points to recent studies that correlated eating 50 grams a day of processed meats for several years with a 21 percent increased risk of colorectal cancer.
That equals about one hot dog a day, two deli slices of bologna, or five slices of bacon.
The health concerns primarily relate to the high fat and salt content of those foods.
"It's been known for a long time that processed meats have serious health risks," Peppercorn said. "But studies that have been done recently have pinpointed colorectal cancer."
Reducing risk an uphill risk
The American Cancer Society, which declined to comment on the hot dog campaign, says diets high in red meat — beef, pork, lamb, or liver — and processed meats, such as hot dogs, raises colorectal cancer risk. The society says a balanced, healthy diet, and physical exercise, are key to reducing the risk.
Last year, the American Medical Association adopted a "healthy food" policy that urges hospitals to drop processed meats from their menus.
The World Health Organization has gone even further — declaring that processed meats are "carcinogenic to humans" citing a review of cancer deaths around the world.
But, as Mittenthal points out, that report didn't call on consumers to stop eating processed meat altogether.
"If (physicians committee) members don’t want people to eat hot dogs and other prepared meat products, they can enjoy the vegetarian options that are always available,” he said. “But don’t take away a food option that even the WHO says can be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet.”
Nationwide, more than 1 billion pounds of hot dogs, worth more than $2.4 million, were sold to U.S. consumers in 2016, according to the hot dog council. And hot dog connoisseurs in Boston are among the biggest fans, placing fourth among major U.S. cities in terms of consumption.
Peppercorn and other hot dog detractors say they know they face an uphill battle to convince consumers to avoid the staple of carnivals, ballgames and backyard cookouts — a tradition as American as apple pie.
"Years ago cigarettes were considered a cultural icon," she said. "But that culture had to change once the evidence showed that smoking was carcinogenic."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com