Do Poultry Viruses Cause Human Cancers?

The incidence of cancers has been rising for the last half century, and the question is why? Up to 20 percent of all cancers are caused by infectious agents, chiefly viruses. We’ve known this was possible for a century, when a cancer-causing virus was discovered in chickens. The idea was considered such heresy that Dr. Peyton Rous, the man who made this landmark discovery, wouldn’t get his Nobel Prize until 55 years later.

If there are cancer-causing chicken viruses, might they have any effect on people who handle or eat poultry? Concern has been raised about the potential infectivity of cancer-causing farm animal viruses for decades. The first question was whether there was any evidence of human exposure, and, indeed, people do have antibodies to these cancer-causing chicken viruses in their bloodstream. This indicates that the virus is no stranger to our immune systems. Is there any evidence, though, that the virus itself can get into our blood? There wasn’t any such evidence…until 2001.

As I explain in my video The Role of Poultry Viruses in Human Cancers, there is a cancer-causing herpesvirus in poultry, but does it pose a public health hazard? Researchers used DNA fingerprinting techniques to test the blood of 202 people and found that 20 percent, or one in five individuals, had viral DNA in their bloodstream. Testing positive for avian herpesvirus doesn’t mean these diseases can necessarily infect human cells, however. But, as it turns out, they can indeed.

But do they cause human disease? How can that be figured out? Since we can’t just inject people, researchers looked at poultry workers, which is the way we figured out how other farm animal diseases, such as brucellosis and anthrax, jumped to humans. In fact, studying workers is also how we discovered the carcinogenic nature of things like asbestos and benzene. If the poultry workers, who are exposed day in and day out, don’t have higher cancer rates, then presumably the viruses are harmless. Unfortunately, they do have higher rates. In fact, those with high exposure to cancer-causing poultry viruses have “increased risk of dying from several cancers.”

As such, “the relative ease” with which some of the viruses can infect human cells, as well as infect and cause tumors in primates in laboratories, “may be of public health significance, particularly because of the…increased risk of cancer in meat workers” and the evidence that we may become infected with these viruses. However, even if poultry workers are at risk, it doesn’t mean people who merely eat chicken or eggs are. For example, workers who kill chickens were found to be six times more likely to die from brain cancer compared to workers who do not kill poultry, but the slaughterers have live birds flapping in their faces. The “intensity of exposure to these viruses in the general population cannot be expected to be as high as those experienced by poultry workers…[but] the general population is nevertheless widely exposed” to the viruses simply because we eat so many chickens and eggs.

This is supported by data showing that it’s not only the factory farm workers who are at higher risk for brain tumors, but also butchers and meat cutters who have no exposure to live birds, particularly those who don’t wear gloves and frequently have cuts on their hands. These workers are at higher risk for other cancers, as well.

Those who handle meat for a living also have higher rates of non-cancer mortality, such as increased death from heart disease and other health concerns outlined at 3:32 in my video. Some of the poultry viruses not only cause cancer in chickens, but also atherosclerosis. Indeed, that cancer-causing poultry herpesvirus also triggers the buildup of cholesterol crystals in chickens. But, what about in people? “Because chickens infected with Marek disease virus, a herpesvirus, develop atherosclerotic lesions after infection, [researchers] looked for the presence of herpesvirus or parts thereof in human artery wall tissue…” Evidence of the virus was found, though any role they play in human heart disease remains speculative.

“Considerable attention has been paid to substances present in animal food before and after cooking as risk factors for human diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and various cancers…[and] exposures have included heme [iron], fat or cholesterol, dioxins,” and the cooked meat carcinogens. We didn’t think, however, about the animal viruses, which “are important not only for supermarket workers and other workers in the meat and poultry industries, but also because the general population is exposed.” Indeed, the study that found chicken virus DNA circulating in people’s bloodstreams also found about the same rates in office workers as they did in chicken slaughterhouse workers, which you can see at 4:42 in my video.


Other viruses may actually play a role in the obesity epidemic. See, for example, Infectobesity: Adenovirus 36 and Childhood Obesity

For other potential microbiological hazards in poultry, check out:

And, for potential chemical hazards in poultry, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Foods to Avoid to Help Prevent Diabetes

We’ve known that being overweight and obese are important risk factors for type 2 diabetes, but, until recently, not much attention has been paid to the role of specific foods. I discuss this issue in my video, Why Is Meat a Risk Factor for Diabetes?

A 2013 meta-analysis of all the cohorts looking at the connection between meat and diabetes found a significantly higher risk associated with total meat consumption––especially consumption of processed meat, particularly poultry. But why? There’s a whole list of potential culprits in meat: saturated fat, animal fat, trans fats naturally found in meat, cholesterol, or animal protein. It could be the heme iron found in meat, which can lead to free radicals and iron-induced oxidative stress that may lead to chronic inflammation and type 2 diabetes, or advanced glycation end (AGE) products, which promote oxidative stress and inflammation. Food analyses show that the highest levels of these so-called glycotoxins are found in meat—particularly roasted, fried, or broiled meat, though any foods from animal sources (and even high fat and protein plant foods such as nuts) exposed to high dry temperatures can be potent sources of these pro-oxidant chemicals.

In another study, researchers fed diabetics glycotoxin-packed foods, like chicken, fish, and eggs, and their inflammatory markers––tumor necrosis factor, C-reactive protein, and vascular adhesion molecules––shot up. “Thus, in diabetes, environmental (dietary) AGEs promote inflammatory mediators, leading to tissue injury.” The good news is that restriction of these kinds of foods may suppress these inflammatory effects. Appropriate measures to limit AGE intake, such as eliminating meat or using only steaming and boiling as methods for cooking it, “may greatly reduce the already heavy burden of these toxins in the diabetic patient.” These glycotoxins may be the missing link between the increased consumption of animal fat and meats and the development of type 2 diabetes.

Since the 2013 meta-analysis was published, another study came out in which approximately 17,000 people were followed for about a dozen years. Researchers found an 8% increased risk for every 50 grams of daily meat consumption. Just one quarter of a chicken breast’s worth of meat for the entire day may significantly increase the risk of diabetes. Yes, we know there are many possible culprits: the glycotoxins or trans fat in meat, saturated fat, or the heme iron (which could actually promote the formation of carcinogens called nitrosamines, though they could also just be produced in the cooking process itself). However, we did learn something new: There also appears to be a greater incidence of diabetes among those who handle meat for a living. Maybe there are some diabetes-causing zoonotic infectious agents––such as viruses––present in fresh cuts of meat, including poultry.

A “crucial factor underlying the diabetes epidemic” may be the overstimulation of the aging enzyme TOR pathway by excess food consumption––but not by the consumption of just any food: Animal proteins not only stimulate the cancer-promoting hormone insulin growth factor-1 but also provide high amounts of leucine, which stimulates TOR activation and appears to contribute to the burning out of the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas, contributing to type 2 diabetes. So, it’s not just the high fat and added sugars that are implicated; critical attention must be paid to the daily intake of animal proteins as well.

According to a study, “[i]n general, lower leucine levels are only reached by restriction of animal proteins.” To reach the leucine intake provided by dairy or meat, we’d have to eat 9 pounds of cabbage or 100 apples to take an extreme example. That just exemplifies the extreme differences in leucine amounts provided by a more standard diet in comparison with a more plant-based diet.

I reviewed the role endocrine-disrupting industrial pollutants in the food supply may play in a three-part video series: Fish and Diabetes, Diabetes and Dioxins, and Pollutants in Salmon and Our Own Fat. Clearly, the standard America diet and lifestyle contribute to the epidemic of diabetes and obesity, but the contribution of these industrial pollutants can no longer be ignored. We now have experimental evidence that exposure to industrial toxins alone induces weight gain and insulin resistance, and, therefore, may be an underappreciated cause of obesity and diabetes. Consider what’s happening to our infants: Obesity in a six-month-old is obviously not related to diet or lack of exercise. They’re now exposed to hundreds of chemicals from their moms, straight through the umbilical cord, some of which may be obesogenic (that is, obesity-generating).

The millions of pounds of chemicals and heavy metals released every year into our environment should make us all stop and think about how we live and the choices we make every day in the foods we eat. A 2014 review of the evidence on pollutants and diabetes noted that we can be exposed through toxic spills, but “most of the human exposure nowadays is from the ingestion of contaminated food as a result of bioaccumulation up the food chain. The main source (around 95%) of [persistent pollutant] intake is through dietary intake of animal fats.”


For more on the information mentioned here, see the following videos that take a closer look at these major topics:  

AGEs: Glycotoxins, Avoiding a Sugary Grave, and Reducing Glycotoxin Intake to Prevent Alzheimer’s.

TOR: Why Do We Age?, Caloric Restriction vs. Animal Protein Restriction, Prevent Cancer From Going on TOR, and Saving Lives By Treating Acne With Diet

Viruses: Infectobesity: Adenovirus 36 and Childhood Obesity

Poultry workers: Poultry Exposure and Neurological Disease, Poultry Exposure Tied to Liver and Pancreatic Cancer, and Eating Outside Our Kingdom

Industrial pollutants: Obesity-Causing Pollutants in Food, Fish and Diabetes, Diabetes and Dioxins, and Pollutants in Salmon and Our Own Fat

The link between meat and diabetes may also be due to a lack of sufficient protective components of plants in the diet, which is discussed in my videos How May Plants Protect Against Diabetes?, Plant-Based Diets for DiabetesPlant-Based Diets and Diabetes, and How Not to Die from Diabetes.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: