‘When We See Cancer in Pork, We Just Cut It Out And Still Sell It To Customers’ Claim

A February 2018 post (“An Experienced Butcher Admits: “When We See Cancer In The Pork, We Just Cut It And Still Sell It To Customers””) circulated widely on Facebook in October 2019, inspiring a fresh round of users vowing to never again eat any pork products.

Images accompanying the post were presumably responsible for the viral spread of the claim, which were used to illustrate the purported discovery of cancer in pork on a butcher’s table:

One widely circulated iteration was published by EducateInspireChange.org on February 20 2018:

Meat eaters might want to reconsider their diet choices.

A butcher has shocked the world by saying that when coming across cancer in pork, he and many other butchers just cut it out, and continue to sell to customers.

When you buy meat from a butchers, you expect that you are usually buying the best quality, better than supermarket standard, but this has been shown not to be the case.

Meat cuts are very expensive, and this butcher has been honest about the process that the meat goes through before selling. I guess it would be mad for a butcher to throw a whole cut away just because there was a problem with one part of it.

There is no legal obligation for butchers to give information about cancers in the meant to the customers.

The article strongly implied — but did not state outright — that the following image was part of the purported claim, and that the quoted butcher shared it as an example:

In the above excerpt, the second half of the first paragraph linked to what presumably constituted the basis of the claim and headline. But it wasn’t a news item or other vetted claim; instead, the link simply brought users to a November 2017 tweet. That included an image of a different piece of purportedly diseased pork, along with an unverified claim:

I worked in a meat market for 5 years, this is very true. pic.twitter.com/g7NWguDvSb

— ☥Lucky☥ (@Wisethedome) November 16, 2017

EducateInspireChange.org likely didn’t carefully read that tweet’s discussion thread. Although its headline described the Twitter user as an “experienced butcher,” they actually described themselves specifically as a one-time supermarket employee:

I worked at one the largest grocery store retailers on the east coast and all the grocery stores get there meats from pretty much the same companies. You don’t have to believe me, I KNOW what I’ve seen.

Notably, in the article excerpt above, EducateInspireChange.org contrasted this person’s knowledge as a purported butcher with that of an average supermarket worker in their content:

When you buy meat from a butchers, you expect that you are usually buying the best quality, better than supermarket standard, but this has been shown not to be the case.

To reiterate, their claim contrasting supermarket meat with butcher meat specifically was predicated on differences between the sources — but they got the information from a purported supermarket employee, contradicting their own stated reasoning.

Furthermore, the Twitter user said that they were vegan, and that they regularly shared content about the dangers and perils of eating meat:

I been vegan 6 years i been posting about this stuff, for years you just seeing it posted today. ????????‍♂️

Being vegan in and of itself is absolutely not cause to distrust a claim, but in this case, the commenter was a supermarket worker — not a butcher as was later claimed, and espoused a clear and admitted anti-meat viewpoint. From subsequent comments, it appeared that they did not actually describe themselves as a “butcher,” much less an “experienced butcher.”

A screenshot included with the post featured an image not crawled until the tweet went viral in November 2017, and its source remains unclear. EducateInspireChange.org wasn’t even the first site to use “An Experienced Butcher Admits: “When We See Cancer In The Pork, We Just Cut It And Still Sell It To Customers”” as their headline. In December 2017, the site TheUnknownButNotHidden published an article with an identical headline:

This guy said he’s been a butcher for 30 years and when he sees cancer in the pork he just cut it out then they still sell the meat to customers.

Both articles included images that in part formed the basis of their claims. The same month the tweet appeared (November 2017), a commenter shared the image to Reddit’s r/ThatHappened, a subreddit where users share stories that, to them, seem obviously fake:

Commenters were divided; some mused that it was impossible to contract cancer from eating cancerous meat, and others asserted that the “tumor” was in fact garlic butter. Without a source, determining the circumstances of the image definitively was impossible. That particular image did resemble the Kiev style of wrapping meat around herbed butter, and the image looked like at least one image tutorial for pork Kiev.

In October 2017, another Reddit user shared a similar image to the site’s r/whatisthisthing.

In the top comment on that thread, a commenter claimed their butcher friend identified the substance and advised “those are glands and should not be eaten.” Another speculated the image showed “abscesses,” which might have a high concentration of bacteria.

As for the other popular image depicting cooked, sliced pork, that too seemed to originate on Reddit via r/mildlydisgusting. That poster didn’t explain the image’s origin:

If that Reddit post was the image’s first appearance on the internet, the image was not presented as either originating with a butcher or showing cancer in retail meat. If it was accurately titled, the meat could have been obtained through a farm directly, or been raised by a private livestock owner. As no information was given, no explanation was certain.

Rumors of cancer in meat circulated in 2012 and 2013 too, once again bolstered by images shared to Reddit and later removed from their context. In 2013, a post to r/skeptic included debate about the image. Originally, the same image (without captioning) was shared to r/popping — a subreddit devoted to draining pimples and abscesses.

In the 2012 version, the submitter admitted to “finding” the image and not having taken it themselves. After the photograph circulated, the “cancer in pork” rumor spread on separate subreddits. In the 2013 r/skeptic discussion, a user opined:

Looks like a spinal abscess, i.e a localised collection of pus separated from the surrounding tissue by a fibrous capsule. Happens occasionally. No respectable establishment is going to be serving that, though. It’s not sanitary, it stinks and the meat surrounding the abscess is toughened. Depending on the amount of contamination (those things can be quite pressurised and when cut into the puss will just spray out) a thing like that may lead to a large chunk, if not the whole of the carcass being condemned.

Another self-identified “meat industry” insider agreed with the assessment, adding possibly informed context. According to that user, butchers and other meat processors don’t “just cut it and sell it.” All efforts are made to detect and discard diseased meat, although the individual maintained it happened solely through error:

As someone who has worked in the meat industry for the last 8+ years, I can confirm that this is exactly right. We see these things all the time. Usually, they are caught and excised by QA’s or “meat inspectors”. Sadly though it is fairly common that they are missed. For around two of those 8 years, I worked in an area that involved sorting the “finished” product, and I was pretty disgusted to see how often these things are missed. It may not end up on your plate often, but it’s the middleman who will end up furious most of the time.

In response to a question about how common such oversights are, the same commenter replied:

[Chances you’ll see infected meat are very] small. It will get past the people who are too bored to do their job properly, but once it hits the butcher who’s selling to you, he has a very vested interest in keeping your food clean and presentable, lest he lose customers. Which is why it is he as the middle man who gets so frustrated. He just wants to sell an edible product, but ends up doing a lot of the work he has already paid the wholesaler for and he’s losing good product/weight due to careless work further back in the chain.

Bottom line is that consumers really don’t need to worry about this. It’s not unheard of, but if it does happen it will be pretty obvious and you should most definitely take steps to make sure whomever is accountable is held as such.

That comment was published in 2013, four years before the articles and tweet went viral. In it, the user correctly states that butchers have a vested interest in avoiding the handling and sale of infected pork and other meat — it harms their business and inhibits repeat custom. According to the two circulating articles, butchers finding cancer in meat “just cut it and sell it to customers,” a practice that would have only negative consequences for their business.

A tweet embedded above that served as a citation for both articles was shared on November 16 2017. On November 21 2017, a butcher Jon Viner did a Reddit AMA (“ask me anything“) inviting questions about butchery from the Reddit community ahead of Thanksgiving:

Neither of the two subsequent articles (“An Experienced Butcher Admits: “When We See Cancer In The Pork, We Just Cut It And Still Sell It To Customers”) had yet been published, but a user submitted a question with a virtually identical title:

Is it true that if you see a cancerous part in the animal you just cut it out and keep the rest of the meat to cut and sell?

Viner explained standard procedure for butchers when infected meat is discovered:

No, at work when I come across something like that, we discard everything. We gotta clean our saw, we clean everything, that’s contamination. Like a cyst, something like that, we discard all the meat.

Interestingly, the thread of questioning seemed to mirror claims that would eventually appear in the viral article. The next user asked if there was a correlation between high-end sources and supermarkets:

Can you elaborate on this? Is that something that I would normally find on something I buy in a higher-end supermarket with a good butcher (like Stew Leonard’s)? Is there something I should look for?

Viner again responded, adding that meat processors discard the entire carcass irrespective of whether the retail destination was “high-end”:

No, there really isn’t [something consumers should look for]. It’s just like [illness in] people – you don’t know it until you find it, and when we do, we get rid of the whole animal. We don’t want to let our consumers have any of that.

On November 22 2017, meat scientist Janeal Yancey, Ph.D. addressed what was clearly rapidly spreading viral nonsense on her meat-focused blog. Yancey said that friends had been asking her about the viral tweet quite a lot as it circulated.

Yancey maintained that most meat “comes from young animals who would be very unlikely to have cancer, adding that any “animal with cancer would be very sick and would be condemned on the kill floor by the inspector.” Correctly observing that “pictures like these aren’t about safety or public health; they are about generating clicks and shares and fame for the originator,” she confirmed that the picture is “not cancer” but “an abscess, a localized infection that the animal’s body was fighting.”

Yancey then reiterated what commenters had been saying for years, that there are “several barriers that keep abscesses out of a retail butcher’s hands,” explaining:

Abscesses like this one would be very rare to find in a butcher shop. Our meat supply is one of the most inspected industries in the world. Not even hospitals and nursing homes are inspected like meat plants are. Employees of the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service inspect every single animal as it goes through the harvest process. In a big commercial plant, dozens of pairs of eyes will look at every carcass. When an abscess is spotted, it is removed immediately. If an animal has been sick, USDA inspectors will see the signs of illness in the animal’s lymph nodes and internal organs. Sick animals are condemned and not allowed to go into the food supply.

As Yancey observed at the end of the post, the virality of such claims was itself an indicator that tumors or cancer in butcher meat or pork could not possibly be as common as rumors suggest. No good explanation was apparent for why more butchers didn’t speak out, but more compellingly, why Facebook and Instagram were not awash in images of pus-filled pork. TruthOrFiction.com has done numerous pages on extremely viral Facebook claims about contaminated food, and pork dripping pus is, as Yancey again noted, guaranteed “clicks and shares and fame for the originator.”

Another element to the posts beyond their morbid fascination is the underlying question of whether you can get cancer by eating meat from an animal with cancer. That question is itself part of a larger question about whether cancer is contagious. As it applies to the possibility of eating cancerous-infected animals and subsequently developing cancer, the answer is “that’s not how it works“:

In general, no. Cancer is not a contagious disease that easily spreads from person to person. The only situation in which cancer can spread from one person to another is in the case of organ or tissue transplantation. A person who receives an organ or tissue from a donor who had cancer in the past may be at increased risk of developing a transplant-related cancer in the future. However, that risk is extremely low—about two cases of cancer per 10,000 organ transplants. Doctors avoid the use of organs or tissue from donors who have a history of cancer.

Finally, as LeadStories noted in a post about the rumor, the viral article falsely claimed there is “no legal obligation for the butchers to give information about cancers in the meant to the customers.” In actuality, animals found to be ill by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service “are not allowed to be slaughtered and are humanely euthanized.”

This particular rumor may have been resurrected and driven by an April 2019 announcement from the Trump administration that regulations for the pork industry would be changing effective November 2019, limiting oversight and allowing the industry to monitor itself:

Really big plants commonly have seven government inspectors working the hog line. One looks at the whole pig carcass, three look at the heads, and the last three are looking at everything else.

So here’s what the Trump administration is changing, starting in November:

  1. Hog slaughter plants can now opt into a new system in which they can hire their own people to replace some—but not all—federal inspectors.
  2. There is no longer a cap on line speeds. Companies can set them as they see fit.

The regulatory change has roiled public health watchdogs, who claim the changes give meat companies too much authority and not enough oversight. They claim the industry will easily be able to cut corners, which will ultimately expose the public to more foodborne pathogens.

There’s quite a bit to recap about the two articles titled “An Experienced Butcher Admits: “When We See Cancer In The Pork, We Just Cut It And Still Sell It To Customers,” one of which appeared to have been shared nearly a million times on Facebook. The “experienced butcher” in question was just a random Twitter user who claimed to have worked in a supermarket; he did not claim to have been a butcher. Images published with the articles came from random Reddit threads. Meat processors and butchers do in fact have a legal obligation not to process or sell meat from diseased animals, and protocol for finding disease includes discarding the entire animal and disinfecting all equipment. Contradicting the rumor also is a large dearth of similar images. And finally, grossness aside, you can’t become infected with cancer by eating meat from a sick animal — but the USDA still prohibits the slaughter and sale of diseased meat.