Historical Tidbits: Beer and Cancer, 1979

"Beer-drinking Americans are being exposed to significant amounts of [nitrosamines,] a cancer-causing agent, and the Government should order brewers to clean up their products, a public interest group said today."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest insisted that Americans were consuming "20 times" more nitrosamines, from "drinking beer than from eating bacon." According to CSPI's Michael Jacobson, "'Americans are clearly consuming a significant amount of nitrosamines in their beer,'" thanks to the "direct fire technique" used to manufacture the malt used in beer. (*1)

Not quite, said the Food and Drug Administration. An FDA study had found "microscopic traces" of the contaminant in a handful of beers, an agency spokesperson told reporters, but "we don't think there is any reason for people to change their beer-consuming habits, or switch to other beers." (*2)

Nitrosamines can be dangerous, the agency explained, but those found in beer "are not added, but occur naturally." More to the point, there was "no" credible data that demonstrated that the amount found in beer was harmful. (*3)

Still, the CSPI's dodgy press release got more attention than the more substantive information reported by the FDA, a fact that was not lost on the nation's beermakers. The CSPI's "attack on brewers' credibility," observed the editor of Modern Brewery Age, a brewing trade journal, had been "fueled" by the dissemination of "partial, misleading information."Moreover, the brewing industry had been aware of the problem, such as it was, for more than a year. (*4)

But serious researchers also knew that tests of nitrosamines content were "so new and so delicate" that any results were hard to replicate. "There is no sense in publicizing data which is likely to be invalidated by subsequent tests." Worse yet, he noted, impartial and substantive information "doesn't get you the kind of media event that you can get from attacks on 'big bad brewers . . . ."

Translation: The CSPI ought to shut its mouth until and unless it had facts to report.



*1: "Group Seeks to Rid Beers of Cancer-Causing Agent," New York Times, September 20, 1979, p. 16.

*2: "Nitrosamines Detected in 28 Beers," New York Times, September 23, 1979, p. 37. [See below for the beers.]

*3: "Bad News Beers," New West 4 (December 3, 1979): SC-40

*4: This and remaining quotes are from "Cancer, Credibility, and Beer," Modern Brewery Age 30 (October 1, 1979), p. 2. In a list that reads like a Memorial to Fallen Warriors, the FDA found traces of nitrosamines in: Domestic beers: Schaefer, Budweiser, Miller, Colt 45, Schlitz, Lowenbrau (Miller Brewing's brand), Colt-45 Silver, Blitz-Weinhard, Carling Black Label, National Bohemian, Old Milwaukee, Pabst, Tuborg, and Ballantine. Imports: Kaiser Export, Paulander Munchen, Stauder Spezial, Diekirch, Dortmunder Union Special, Theakston Old Peculiar, Gosser Golden Rock, Heineken, San Miguel, Molson beer, and Molson Ale.