The hot dog wars have begun.
Hot dogs, corn dogs, pepperoni pizza and other meals featuring processed meat are a staple of school lunches. But now — just in time for National School Lunch week — a vegetarian-affliliated group has launched a campaign to get meat out of school cafeterias.
Alarmed by some research that indicates processed meats can lead to an increased risk for colon cancer in adulthood, The Cancer Project has petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop distributing hot dogs and other processed meats to schoolchildren. The USDA oversees the federal school lunch program, which provides free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches to low-income students across the country.
"It will be interesting to see what the USDA decides. We will continue to monitor reports and make sure we have safe food supplies," said Virginia Allerton, food services director for the Castro Valley Unified School District. "But I would hate to think hot dogs contribute to cancer, because they are one of this country's favorite foods."
Indeed. Americans relish their hot dogs and sausages — eating $4.1 billion worth last year alone.
This month, the Fremont school district has served or plans to serve turkey hot dogs or turkey corn dogs at least once a week, and the New Haven district in Union City will serve hot dogs or corn dogs three times by month's end.
The San Lorenzo, Castro Valley and San Leandro districts also serve hot dogs about twice a month, according to officials. All three districts serve turkey dogs at the elementary schools, while beef hot dogs are offered at the middle and high school levels. Occasionally, a chicken corn dog will appear on the elementary school lunch menu, officials said.
The Hayward school district does not serve hot dogs, and Newark did not list hot dogs or corn dogs on its October menu, though it offers entrees such as pepperoni pizza.
In addition to meat entrees, Fremont and New Haven offer a vegetarian entree daily.
"We follow the USDA National School Lunch guidelines, so until they ban hot dogs, we will still have them as an option," said Nicole Steward, a spokeswoman for Fremont Unified.
"But there are other options. ... There's always a vegetarian option and a salad bar," she added.
The San Jose Unified School District also has done a lot to promote healthful choices. But Lowell Elementary School Principal Jodi Lax said kids regularly go for sweet or high-fat foods over the more nutritious offerings.
During a recent visit to the school, students in the lunch line whizzed past the celery, carrots and broccoli and eagerly reached for corn dogs and hot dogs.
"For me, my favorite is hot dogs. You can put ketchup and mustard on it," said Elijah Guido, 8. "If there were no hot dogs, I would probably die."
California schools serve 4 million meals as part of the federal lunch program every day. Most of the food comes from outside vendors that contract with the USDA, so schools have little control over what is served. The School Nutrition Association said the "science behind the calls to eliminate processed meats from schools is far from conclusive'' and maintains that "lean meats and other proteins are an important part of balanced school meals."
The Cancer Project, which advocates for cancer prevention through nutrition education, is an affiliate of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which advocates a vegetarian or vegan diet.
The campaign to ban hot dogs infuriates the American Meat Institute, which also operates the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. The organization, which represents major hot dog producers such as Oscar Mayer and Ball Park Franks, said the campaign is alarmist and not scientifically sound, arguing that other studies have shown no link between meat consumption and colon cancer.
"The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is an animal rights organization, and their objective is a vegan society," said Janet Riley, president of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council and the group's "Queen of Wien."
Riley said the committee's video ads, which feature a child saying he has colon cancer, is spreading fear.
"My 8-year-old son now thinks that hot dogs cause cancer, and it's appalling and misleading," Riley said.
The Cancer Project cites the American Institute for Cancer Research, which has advised consumers "to reduce your cancer risk, eat no more than 18 ounces (cooked weight) per week of red meats, like beef, pork and lamb and avoid processed meat such as ham, bacon, salami, hot dogs and sausages."
The National Cancer Institute said red and processed meats are associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer, but said that more research is needed. The institute said the increased risk may be "due to the iron and fat in red meat, and/or the salt and nitrates/nitrites in processed meat.''
Others say the American love affair with hot dogs — available everywhere from baseball stadiums to New York City streetcorners — is not going to end anytime soon. To celebrate the nation's birthday, Americans ate 150 million hot dogs on July 4.
Staff writer Kristofer Noceda and Linh Tat contributed to this report. Contact Dana Hull at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-2706.