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Poultry Exposure Tied to Liver and Pancreatic Cancer

Cancer-causing viruses in poultry may explain increased risks of death from liver and pancreatic cancers.

September 13, 2013 |
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Supplementary Info

Sources Cited

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Thanks to Ellen Reid and Shane Barrett for their keynote help. Images thanks to dno1967b via Flickr.



Thousands of Americans continue to die from asbestos exposure decades after many uses were banned, because the cancers can take years to show up. We are now in the so-called “third wave” of asbestos-related disease. The first wave was in the asbestos miners, which started in the 1920s; the second phase was in the workers—the ship-builders and construction workers that used the stuff in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Now, as "buildings constructed with asbestos over the past six decades begin to age and deteriorate, not only are workers at risk, but "Potential also exists for serious environmental exposure to asbestos among residents, tenants and users of these buildings, such as school children, office workers, maintenance workers, and the general public.” "The Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have projected that over the next 30 years approximately 1,000 cases of mesothelioma and lung cancer will occur among persons in the United States exposed to asbestos in school buildings as school children." But it all started with the workers. As one internal industry memo callously put it, "if you've enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products why not die from it."

To see if something is carcinogenic, you study those who have the most exposure. That's how we learned about the potential cancer-causing dangers of asbestos, and that's how we're learning about the potential cancer-causing dangers of poultry viruses. For years I've talked about the excess mortality in poultry workers associated with these wart-causing chicken cancer viruses that may be transmitted to those in the general population handling fresh or frozen chicken. Last year I talked about the largest study at the time “confirming the findings of three other studies to date that workers in poultry slaughtering and processing plants have increased risk of dying from certain cancers,” and adding penis cancer to the risks linked to poultry exposure. That was looking at 20,000 poultry workers. Well, we have yet another study now looking at 30,000.

The purpose of the study was to "test the hypothesis that exposure to poultry cancer-causing viruses that widely occurs occupationally in poultry workers—not to mention the general population--may be associated with increased risks of deaths from liver and pancreatic cancers." They found that those who slaughter chickens have about 9 times the odds of both pancreatic cancer and liver cancer. 

Just to put this in context, the most carefully studied risk factor for pancreatic cancer, one of our deadliest cancers, is cigarette smoking. Even if you smoke for more than 50 years, though, you ‘only’ about double your odds of pancreatic cancer. Those that slaughter poultry appear to have nearly 9 times the odds.

For liver cancer the most well-known and studied cause is alcohol. Those that consume more than a four drinks a day have triple odds of liver cancer. As with pancreatic cancer, poultry slaughtering appears to increase one's odds of getting liver cancer 9-fold. 

There are diseases unique to the meat industry, like the newly described "salami brusher's disease" that affects those whose job it is to wire brush off the white mold that naturally grows on salami for 8 hours a day, but most diseases suffered by meat workers are more universal. The reason the connection between asbestos and cancer was so easy to nail down is that asbestos caused a particularly unusual cancer, which was virtually unknown until there was widespread asbestos mining and industrial use. But the pancreatic cancer one might get from eating chicken, is the same pancreatic cancer one might get smoking cigarettes, so it's more difficult to tease out a cause-and-effect-relationship Bottom line: despite the extremely high risks of deadly cancers, don't expect an asbestos-type ban on Kentucky Fried Chicken anytime soon.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Ariel Levitsky.

To help out on the site please email

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

I've addressed this topic before. See:

It's ironic that the meat industry wants to add viruses to meat (Viral Meat Spray) to combat fecal bacterial contamination. But I'd take that over their other bright idea any day (Maggot Meat Spray).

A human wart virus, HPV, can be combated with green tea (Treating Genital Warts with Green Tea) and plant-based diets in general (Why Might Vegetarians Have Less HPV?).

Although workers with the most poultry exposure appear to suffer the greatest excess mortality, increased deaths from cancer are also found in other slaughterhouse workers. More on that in the next video Eating Outside Our Kingdom.

If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

For more context, check out my associated blog posts: How Animal Proteins May Trigger Autoimmune Disease and Handling Poultry Tied to Liver/Pancreatic Cancer.

erratum: at 3:16 I say "lung" cancer. As shown on the slide and in the transcript, I meant to say "liver" cancer--sorry about that! I'll add this to the list of videos to be rerecorded to correct it.

  • Rich

    Hmmmmm. My father was a butcher. He handled mostly red meat but some
    pork and chicken for years. He survived both colon and prostate cancer
    until he contracted a rare degenerative blood disease (Amyloidosis) and
    that took him. I wonder if butchers are more at risk….perhaps we can

    • Michael Greger M.D.

      I actually published a paper about amyloidosis and meat consumption in the International Journal of Food Safety, Nutrition, and Public Health. Full text can be found here:

      • Rich

        My sincere thanks, Dr. Greger. I read it. I’m not a medical professional. I’m an engineer but i was able to follow much of it. A very fine article. I must share this with my family. I wonder if anything has been published since your article on the link btn amyloidosis and nutrition???? 1000 thanks!

      • HereHere

        I had fostered a small number of ex-battery hens, and I was worried about this. Fortunately, since they are white leghorns, they are immune to the AA fibrils, thank goodness. Well, according to your article and the research of the day. It wouldn’t surprise me if they have somehow lost the immunity. If not, it begs the question as to why they have immunity, and all other vertebrates do not. Very interesting stuff!

  • Nicole

    The video posted above is about asbestos mortality. Thought you might want to know.

    • Nicoel

      Ooops, didn’t read far enough. Disregard.

  • Lissen Up

    So, no evidence of a link to the general population yet. Excellent!

  • just me

    That is gross and one more reason I’m glad to eat plant-based, whole foods. Wasn’t there a movie starring Denzel Washington, where the intelligent powers that be used a virus to combat some other illness? Although it was fiction, it didn’t turn out to well. Yah, I’ll stick with veggies.

    • Melia P

      I believe it was Will Smith – I am Legend

  • Jed L

    Are the conveyor belts at the supermarket check-out counters contaminated with Salmonella and other types of harmful bacteria that derive from fresh meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy? Any studies on this?

    • Thea

      Jed L: The following video from may interest you:

      • Jed L

        I appreciate the link. We are all being exposed to chicken juices, beef juices……on these checkout counters and belts when paying for our groceries. The video didn’t go into this but I am wondering what effect these “juices” are having on my veg’s and fruits. This is the study and video I hope to see someday.

        • Thea

          Ah. Yes, very good question.

          Whether there is a specific study on this particular topic or not, I believe those counters and belts have to be terribly contaminated and some transfer is inevitable. I’ve taken to bringing re-usable produce bags and bagging up everything, including stuff I would not have previously bagged, like bananas. I think the produce bags provides a layer of protection. Of course, it is not perfect and you then have to wash the bags…, but after watching Dr. Greger’s videos, I don’t like having my food directly touching such likely contaminated surfaces.

          Of course, it’s not just the belts. What about the hands of the people stocking the produce? Etc. We could drive ourselves nuts thinking about this. So, I also try to keep some perspective on the issue. While reasonable precautions are a good idea, it is not worth living in fear. Better in my opinion to accept some risk without a second thought.

          That’s just my 2 cents worth. Good luck to you.

          • Seann Sweeney

            Shopping at a farmers market, getting your food through a CSA or other local food distribution can prevent this as well.

          • Seann Sweeney

            Or making sure you shop somewhere that cleans the belts and has a clean operation.

          • Thea

            I don’t think they can clean it good enough. Did you see the recent series Dr. Greger did on people cleaning their kitchens – even with detailed directions using bleach – and there were still dangerous bacteria found in the kitchen. Even if a supermarket somehow managed to truly clean their surfaces (which I don’t think they can) every single day, the first time someone plops their contaminated packages on the belt that day, the bacteria is back. I’m just saying, I don’t care how clean it looks or how much the sales person tells you she/he cleans the surfaces they work around, I would treat it at germ-laden.

          • DanielFaster

            Makes me wonder about the real risk of cross contamination whenever chicken dishes are served in a restaurant with ‘vegan’ options. They are not biohazard labs either.

          • Jay Blanchard

            IMHO the more I research the more I find that there are bacteria and viruses every where. (To include already in your body.) You can not get rid of them. The fact that they are airborne means that you can kill them with chlorine but in a few minutes they are replaced. That is not to say we should not clean. But I think along with cleanliness the biggest factor is our bodies ability to defend against them. And a plant based diet empowers us the most to do that.

          • Thea

            I’m a big fan of farmer’s markets too.

          • Jed L

            Yes, let’s not live in fear but consider this: there seems, to me, to be a big difference in what is on the person’s hands stocking the fruit and veggies verse the dripping salmonella juices dripping through raw chicken packages….the blood from red meat packages…as it forms a nice layer on the conveyor belt that several hundred and more people will pass through each day. I am not saying be saying this in sarcasm. If someone stocking produce had salmonella juices and red meat blood constantly on their hands I think they would be removed and put in the….meat department. Yuck. But blood and raw chicken juice seem to be prevalent at the register. And I don’t think a swipe of the paper towel counts as “cleaning things up.”

          • Thea


          • HereHere

            We need veganic grocery stores!

          • Toxins

            I would love for a “fast food” chain to open up that served whole foods plant based, low sodium low fat meals at a low price. I have always dreamed of this kind of store! Sadly, the only few places that I can truly eat out at and stick to my diet are whole foods and Kublai Khan.

    • Dawn Anewday

      Call your local TV news station to do the tests in your local markets. KATU in Portland does this kind of testing and boy is it informative. But someone please explain to me why grocery checkers always act like I’m such a hassle when I ask them to clean the conveyor belts.

  • Seann Sweeney

    Was there any distinction between workers who worked in large factory farm plants vs workers who worked in a more sustainable operations where the chickens we able to actually run around and be chickens? I wonder if you studied the two groups separately you would get different results. This report makes it seem like all workers who slaughtered chickens have the same risks, but that might not be true and it might be dependent on what type of plant/farm they worked on. Think of Tyson compared to Polyface farm, big difference.

  • lagaya

    When you were talking about liver cancer being caused by alcohol, you suddenly switched and said lung cancer. I’m assuming you meant liver cancer throughout that segment, since you had already covered lung cancer in the previous paragraph.

  • Rose

    Did this include chicken’s egg which are organic, free range?

  • Jay Blanchard

    Dr. Greger love your work. Saw you here in Buffalo. Thank You for what you do. Your work has made a profound impact on my food consumption. I share it with others all the time.

    Do you feel like the source here is mass produced poultry or ALL poultry? In the past we have had farm chickens here and have eaten a few. Not sure we want to get some again. I do like the manure for my garden and the bug reduction around the garden and barn. We don’t eat them or the eggs “much.” I’m down to less than one serving a week of meat/poultry/eggs.

    Also in the above chart on alcohol consumption it looks like people that have a few drinks a day have reduce risk. Do you feel this way?

  • William Dwyer

    “Don’t expect to see a ban on Kentucky Fried Chicken soon.” Excuse
    me! You don’t BAN what you think is unhealthy; you INFORM people of the
    dangers or risks and let them make their OWN choices. You are not a
    health dictator! At least I didn’t think you were.

    to what you do best — providing excellent information to those who
    will benefit by it, if they choose to follow your advise.

    • HereHere

      I don’t think the good doctor is being a dictator. Asbestos has been banned for health reasons, so has lead in water pipes. There are precedents, but I don’t think Dr. Greger was telling people to lobby for the abolition of KFC (although I personally wouldn’t touch the stuff). It was more a bit of his sense of humor. If you’ve seen him speak in person, you’d probably pick up on that. Can’t blame if you if you didn’t, though.

  • fahdutnik

    Since my Dad died of pancreatic cancer, now I’m doubly glad I’ve given up poultry (& meat)

  • Steve Henwood

    Although heating asbestos would make no difference, since it is fire resistant, wouldn’t cooking poultry denature the virus, and thereby stop it from causing cancer by this route? Then the risk would apply to workers that handle live virus, but not to people who eat cooked poultry, right?

    • HereHere

      Very good question! I guess it depends on whether the cooking temperature kills the particular virus in mind and whether (as it seems to be the case) that the virus enters the body before the package of the chicken is even opened (see recent video on the subject).

    • b00mer

      I recommend this video (regarding bacteria rather than viruses, but still relevant to the point of cross-contamination):


      “Can’t you just use a meat thermometer and cook chicken thoroughly? We’ve known for 36 years that it’s not always the meat, but the cross-contamination… [ ]… And they know it was cross-contamination because the jump happened after the animal was prepared but before it was eaten. Not only did it not matter how well the chicken was cooked, it doesn’t even matter if you eat any! It’s the bringing of the contaminated carcass into the home and handling it.”

      Can you just clean your kitchen? Well, you can try:

      “After [the volunteers] cook the chicken [they] have to wash everything with hot water and detergent; they were told specifically to wash the cutting board, knobs on the sink, the faucet, the fridge, the doorknobs, everything. The researchers still found pathogenic fecal bacteria everywhere. Fine. Last group. This time they were going to insist that people bleach everything. The dishcloth was immersed in bleach disinfectant and then they sprayed the bleach on all those surfaces. Let the bleach disinfectant sit there for 5 minutes. And still they found campylobacter and salmonella on some utensils, a dishcloth, the counter around the sink and the cupboard.”

  • lucidvu

    Viral infection of a chicken tumor was first discovered in 1909. There are many types and strains of virus with different effects. Viruses can be used to treat cancer too. Newcastle disease is caused by a virus that can be transmitted from chickens to humans. It has been shown to selectively kill human tumor cells with low toxicity to normal cells. Its anti-cancer properties have been known since the 1950′s.

    Animals raised for food in deplorable conditions (closely packed, extreme stress, mediocre food, prophylactic drugs etc) are likely to have immune suppression and other factors contributing to chronic infection.

    Research on plant viruses and their possible impact on human health – negative and positive – is emerging. The most abundant viruses detected in human feces are not human viruses but a “large and diverse community” of plant viruses. The most abundant plant virus is mild mottle virus found in “peppers”.

    Species have evolved defenses against being eaten. Animals have “fight and/or flight”. Plants don’t have flight but can defend and “fight back” with physical attributes like thorns, bitter compounds to dissuade the eater or anti-nutrients and toxins to make the eater suffer or die.

    Researchers have just started looking into possible DNA damaging substances in common plants used as food such as tea and coffee. Excessive DNA damage is another mechanism behind cancer. When DNA is damaged the p53 gene gets activated for repair. Tea and coffee activate this gene as much as 30 fold, similar to the chemotherapy drug etoposide…at least in lab dishes. We’ll have to wait and see what that means.

  • Millan Chessman

    Dear Dr. Greger: my daughter and I are both in the Alternative health industry and we debate as to why folks that get off eating animal products get weak and lethargic. I say it is because the body starts to dump impurities and she says its because the blood sugar drops. which is right? Millan Chessman

    • Thea

      Millan: re: “…folks that get off eating animal products get weak and lethargic.”

      I’ve never met someone who went on a whole plant food based diet get weak and lethargic – other than one person who wasn’t getting enough calories. As soon as she added some nuts and seeds to her diet, she not only stopped feeling shaky, but she developed a ton of energy.

      I can’t imagine what kind of people you are seeing. You might want to check out Dr. Gregers video on body building as there are several references there about some of the strongest, fittest, most athletic people on the planet being vegan and winning strength awards. These people are the opposite of lethargic. Something to think about concerning your base assumption.

      • Millan Chessman

        I have been in the health industry for 32 years and have seen over 30000 + clients. might want to read my book “Cleanse Internally”. I can tell you people do get lethargy when they change their diet to plant base. seen hundreds of these folks. I believe because they are releasing impurities. Dr. Greger would love your input.

  • P G

    What are these workers doing to these chickens?

  • DanielFaster

    I have no doubts about these studies. However, assuming women still handle most chicken in the typical American home (if there is such a thing), how do you explain the rate of pancreatic cancer seems to be fairly split between men and women.

  • Anna King

    Hello Dr. Gregor,

    My family and I are big fans of yours. I and all of my immediate family members are vegan. I became a vegan about 11 years ago, then my sister, then my father, and then my brother. My mother was the last one to make the switch about 7 years ago. We owe much of this to your great work and how readily available you’ve made it to the general public. Thank you for that!!!

    However, my extended family is not as receptive to the vegan message. My father called me a couple days ago and informed me that my uncle
    (his brother-in-law) had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
    Interestingly enough, he decided to see a doctor after noticing that he was having trouble digesting chicken. As you know, pancreatic cancer is a very serious cancer and although my uncle is optimistic about his future, many of us are not. We would love to tell him to go vegan to improve his chances of survival, but we suspect this sentiment would not be well received.

    My question for you is: Do you happen to know of any cancer
    treatment centers that employ a plant-based diet as a part of their treatment program? You know, one where they wouldn’t be telling you that you’re eating vegan, but on their program you essentially would be. My uncle lives in the Chicago, IL area. Any input or advice you have on this topic would be much appreciated!

    Thanks again!

    • Thea

      Anna: I’m happy to hear about your immediate family’s success. I went through something similar with my parents, but like you, the rest of my family still doesn’t get it – including a sibling and my poor, young nephews. I can so relate to your post.

      I’m very sorry to hear about your uncle. I’m hoping someone can jump in and answer your specific question. I just don’t know of anything like that personally.

      What I have to offer is probably not going to be helpful, but just in case, I thought I would share: I have watched a McDougall video (available free on YouTube) titled, “Why did Steve Jobs Die?”. I am not suggesting you have your uncle watch that video. I just thought I would share that the video talks about Steve Jobs living with pancreatic cancer for 30 years. That’s really quite a long time given how fast the cancer usually grows. And Steve Jobs was vegan most of that time.

      Dr. McDougall was not claiming that being vegan helped Steve Jobs to live longer than Jobs would have otherwise. We just don’t know one way or another. Put it is a very interesting story and we have reason to believe that the diet probably did slow down the cancer.

      The reason I bring this story to your attention is that sometimes anecdotes, especially of famous people, can be motivating to people. I figure it is a really slim chance that you would want to mention this story to your uncle, but you might think about it to see if mentioning how, “Steve Jobs lived *30 years* with pancreatic cancer on a vegan diet.” would be helpful or not.

      Best of luck to you and your family.

  • Roman Gregory

    Five and a half years ago I developed an episode of acute pancreatic necrosis. After a month in a hospital bed I finally recovered, thankfully, without having to undergo surgery. Of course, i immediately gave up alcohol, lemonades, fried, spicy and high-fat food. Later I shifted to a vegetarian diet (mainly for ethical reasons). I tried going altogether vegan but failed to stick to veganism properly. Last year, being a vegetarian, I nonetheless developed 2 more episodes of acute pancreatitis. Sadly, in Ukraine where I live there are very few physicians, to say nothing of dietitians, who know something about veganism. All of them vehemently recommend that I resume meateating or, at least, consume more dairy. Surely that’s not an option for me. However, I can’t figure out a proper vegan pancreatitis menu on my own. To make matters worse, the range of vegan options in this country is terribly limited. I understand that eating oatmeals, blueberries, strawberries, acai, apricots, beetroot, cucumbers, broccoli and tomatoes won’t supply me with all the necessary nutrients and vitamins. What else can I add to my grocery list? (Yet again: it’s hard to lead a vegan lifestyle in this country even for a healthy person, let alone someone diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis and chronic cholecystitis.)