Chicken, Breast Cancer and Whodunits?

Dame Agatha Christie DBE (1890 – 1976), was an English crime writer of novels, short stories and plays. Almost all of her books are ‘whodunits’ where the detective either stumbles across the murder, or is called upon by an old acquaintance, who is somehow involved.

Gradually, the detective interrogates each suspect, examines the scene of the crime and makes a note of each clue, so readers can analyze it and be allowed a fair chance of solving the mystery themselves.

A preferred means of murder in Christie’s books was poisoning using arsenic. Easy accessibility of the poison and the possibility of avoiding detection if the victim ingested small amounts at a time, made it a popular choice.

This was exemplified in her 1929 publication of a short story collection Partners in Crime. This included ‘The House of the Lurking Death’, whose story line featured a box of chocolates laced with arsenic at old maid Lois Hargreaves’ home. Not liking chocolates, she was the only one in the house who didn’t sample the unexpected gift and consequently, she was the only one who wasn’t taken ill afterwards making her the number one suspect.

That story was written 80 years ago.

We have a present day mystery on our hands that is not fictional. And the majority of deaths involve females.

The mystery we are talking about is breast cancer.

To unravel the mystery, it may well help if we employ the techniques used in Christie’s prose.

In 2009, there were an estimated 192,370 (female); 1,910 (male) new cases and 40, 170 (female); 440 (male) deaths from breast cancer in the United States. Except for skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women. African American women are more likely than all other women to die from breast cancer (1).

Why is it a mystery?

Well, we have many suspects but we do not  know exactly what is the main cause.

The American Institute for Cancer suggests the evidence is clear:

Everyday choices impact our chances of getting cancer. Some choices increase our risk; many help to reduce it. There are no guarantees, but decades of research have shown that we can take steps to protect ourselves against cancer.

Accordingly they suggest carrying excess body fat is implicated in the development of cancer. They go on to say vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans are low in calorie-density and protect against weight gain and cancer.

One type of bean or legume is the Soybean and scientists believe that several active ingredients in soy have anti-cancer effects. These include: isoflavones (which have been studied most), saponins, phenolic acids, phytic acid, phytosterols and protease inhibitors.  Protease inhibitors have slowed the division of cancer cells and helped to prevent tumors from releasing substances called proteases that destroy nearby cells.(2)

In Asia, soy is mostly consumed in fermented form. The average soy consumption in China is about 10 grams or 2 teaspoons per day and is used as a condiment or flavoring, and not as a substitute for animal foods. (3)

Does this help explain why  East Asian women still have the lowest breast cancer rates? (about 21 per 100,000, as compared with 101 per 100,000 in the United States and 85 per 100,000 in Western Europe).

Maybe. Although this is changing.  In the past decade, China’s urban registries have documented a 20 – 30% increase in cases.(4)

Why the increase?  Better detection rates, or could a changing dietary intake be the cause?

Let’s see if we can find any clues.

If Chinese rates are fast reaching Western levels, are there any Western influences that may be affecting these rates?

One influential iconic figure in the western world of cuisine is Colonel Sanders and his fast food outlet, the KFC restaurant. KFC, opened its first store in China in 1987 near Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Then 2,000 other outlets sprung up across Chinese urban areas within the next 20 years. KFC has chicken as its core product offering.

Where does China get its chicken from?

China imports $800 million in U.S. chicken products annually.

Is that a problem?

Could be.

Here’s how chicken, that ends up on U.S. menu’s, is prepared.

Meat chickens, commonly called broilers, are floor-raised on litter such as wood shavings or rice hulls, indoors in climate-controlled housing. Poultry producers routinely use nationally-approved medications, such as antibiotics, in feed of corn and soya or drinking water, to treat disease or to prevent disease outbreaks arising from overcrowded or unsanitary conditions.

Roxarsone is an antimicrobial drug that also promotes growth, kills parasites and improves pigmentation of chicken meat. In its original form, roxarsone is relatively benign. But under certain anaerobic conditions, within live chickens and on farm land, the compound is converted into more toxic forms of inorganic arsenic. About 70 percent of the 9 billion broiler chickens produced annually in the U.S. are fed a diet containing roxarsone.

In January 2004, The United States Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A), who monitors arsenic levels in food animals, reported in Environmental Health Perspectives that young chickens contain three to four times more arsenic than other poultry and meat.

Arsenic is important in the development of dermatofibromas.

Is that a problem?

Dermatofibromas are hard papules (rounded bumps) that may appear usually on the leg. Though typical dermatofibromas cause little or no discomfort, itching and tenderness can occur. They are composed of disordered collagen laid down by fibroblasts. Dermatofibromas occur most often in women; the male to female ratio is about 1:4.

A study by Paul I Dantzig from the Department of Dermatology, Columbia University School of Medicine tested five patients with clinical dermatofibromas.  There were four women and one man, and their ages ranged from 39 to 54. Three of the women had a history of breast cancer, and three of the patients had a history of squamous cell carcinoma of the skin.  A sample tissue was removed from each patient with half sent for routine histopathologic exam to assess tissue changes characteristic of cancer, and the other half evaluated for arsenic. A blood arsenic level was obtained at the time of the biopsy to rule out any recent exposure to it.

The results showed the five patients with dermatofibromas had their tumors confirmed by histopathology, and none of the patients had measurable blood arsenic at the time of their biopsies. Analysis of the tumors by inductively coupled mass spectrometry showed high levels of arsenic.

The high concentration of arsenic in the dermatofibromas in the absence of arsenic in the blood, led Dantzig to suggest that it is a dynamic process in which small amounts of arsenic are being trapped in the tumor and that it acts as a reservoir. This was further enhanced in the study when it was discovered of 50 patients with breast cancer, 43 had dermatofibromas and 32 had multiple dermatofibromas. And of  50 patients without breast cancer, nine had a single dermatofibroma, and one had multiple dermatofibromas. Thus arsenic may represent the cause of the majority of cases of breast cancer, concluded Dantzig.(5)

Ellen Silbergeld, Ph.D., professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health states;

We’re trying to do everything we can to get levels (arsenic) lower in drinking water at very great cost, and yet we’re deliberately adding it to chicken.(6)

However, we can be reassured by The National Chicken Council, a trade association that represents the U.S. chicken industry.  They claim there is no reason to believe there are any human health hazards associated with the use of roxarsone.(7)

Where do our investigations take us next? How about once the bird as been slaughtered?

Under intensive farming methods, a meat chicken will live less than six weeks before slaughter. Unfortunately conditions in intensive chicken farms may be unsanitary, allowing the proliferation of diseases such as salmonella and E coli.

How do you stop this bacteria growth being passed onto the consumer?

Employ a marinade technique to kill the bacteria as advised by Atkinson in 1957 in the United States, and by Wadhams in Great Britain in1960. (8)

In cookery, the use of the marinade technique is a process whereby;

  • All the elements in a marinade: the liquid base, the herbs and spices, and the oil, help to flavour the food, with the exception of a totally neutral vegetable oil.
  • The acids in a marinade permeate tissue and break down tough fibres, thus tenderizing meat.
  • The oil in marinades adds succulence to food and gives it flavour.
  • Some marinades work in an entirely different way. Some fruits, notably papaya, grapefruit, and pineapple, have natural enzymes that will degrade tough connective tissue by a process called ‘enzymatic reaction’.

This is a typical East Asian marinade:


1/4 cup chopped green onion
1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup marsala wine
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced ginger

Best results are usually achieved when the marinated chicken is chilled in the fridge for up to 1 hour.

Here’s Atkinson’s U.S. marinade used for chicken:

Place your chicken in a tank 4 ft. X 10 ft. X 40 ft. containing approximately 100,000 gallons of chilled, chlorinated water at around 33°F.  Place a few thousand chickens in them at one time, on a continuous basis. The U.S.D.A. advises the operator to maintain a 38 ppm total chlorine residual in these tanks to provide adequate sanitation. The U.S.D.A. also requires one gallon of fresh, chlorinated water to be added per bird (and a matching volume to drain off to waste), that goes through the cooling tanks.

To obtain maximun results in chicken processing plants, it is common to hold the disembowel birds in a chilled water bath for 1.5 hours. As mentioned earlier, marinades work by the acids permeating tissue and breaking down tough fibres, thus tenderizing meat. In this case Hypochlorous acid is the agent in use.

Hypochlorous acid is a weak acid with the chemical formula HClO. It forms when chlorine dissolves in water.  It seems that hypochlorous acid, the active ingredient in bleach, attacks proteins in bacteria, causing them to clump up much like an egg that has been boiled, a team at the University of Michigan reported in the journal ‘Cell‘. (9)

Unfortunately, chlorine also reacts with the meat and compounds in the water, forming highly toxic and carcinogen compounds called THMs or Tri-Halomethanes.(10) These chemicals, also known as organochlorides, do not degrade very well and are generally stored in the fatty tissues of the body (breast, other fatty areas, mother’s milk, blood and semen). Organochlorides can cause mutations by altering DNA, suppress immune system function and interfere with the natural controls of cell growth.

Several studies  link chlorine and chlorinated by-products to a greater incidence of bladder, breast and bowel cancer as well as malignant melanoma,

says Dr. Zoltan P. Rona, a graduate with a Master’s Degree in Biochemistry and Clinical Nutrition from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.

Is anyone else suspicious of the U.S: marinade technique?

In 2008, European Union agriculture ministers rejected attempts to lift a ban on US poultry which is marinated in chlorine. The EU ban, in place since 1997, has effectively stopped all imports of US poultry meat. Agriculture ministers, meeting in Brussels, voted against the attempted move by the European Commission.

EU restrictions on US chicken imports have been challenged by Washington, which is demanding that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) intervene in the dispute claiming that;

the poultry treatments at issue have been widely and safely used in the US for many years.

On January 1, Russia banned imported U.S. chicken halting imports totaling more than 816 million kilograms of chicken broilers or about 26 percent of all U.S. chicken exports — an $800 million trade.

The Federal Consumer Protection Service said the procedure used by U.S. producers for cooling and disinfecting chicken by immersing it in chlorinated water leads to the contamination of the chicken and is dangerous for human health.

So, the meat’s been marinated.

How do we cook it? Fried or Grilled?

Here’s the dilemma. In Spring 2006, KFC was sued for the fat content in its fried chicken, which Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said contains “staggering amounts” of trans fat. One three-piece Extra Crispy combo meal has 15 grams of trans fat, which is more trans fat than a person should have in one week, says the CSPI.

In a statement, KFC called the lawsuit frivolous.

All KFC products are safe to eat and meet or exceed all government regulations, and we take health and safety issues very seriously,” the statement said. However, KFC said it has been considering alternative oils, but the company must look at a number of other factors, including “maintaining KFC’s unique taste.

Following extensive tests, the company said that by April 2007, all 5,500 of its U.S. restaurants will have switched from trans fat-rich partially hydrogenated vegetable oil to a new soybean oil believed to be less likely to cause heart disease. Following this assurance, the CSPI announced that it was withdrawing from the lawsuit.

Anything wrong with this decision?

Unlike in Asia, where people eat small amounts of whole fermented soybean products, western food processors separate the soybean into two commodities; protein and oil and use the unfermented and the processed product to make foods such as soy milk, soy cheese, soy burgers and soy ice cream.

According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, a New York Times Best Selling Author;

“Today’s high-tech processing methods not only fail to remove the anti-nutrients and toxins that are naturally present in soybeans but leave toxic and carcinogenic residues created by the high temperatures, high pressure, alkali and acid baths and petroleum solvents.”

Today, Americans are consuming soy in unprecedented amounts.


In 1999, the FDA approved a health claim for soy foods (which said diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include 25 grams of soy protein a day may reduce the risk of heart disease). Since then, soy sales have skyrocketed. In the years between 2000 and 2007, food manufacturers in the U.S. introduced over 2,700 new foods with soy as an ingredient, including 161 new products introduced in 2007 alone.(11)

This has resulted in a booming multi-billion dollar business. From 1992 to 2007, soy food sales increased from $300 million to nearly $4 billion, according to the Soyfoods Association of North America.

A business that includes an estimated 750,000 babies per year receiving infant formula made from processed soybeans in the U.S.  Parents use soy formula in the belief that is it healthier than formula based on cows’ milk. Dr. Mike Fitzpatrick, a New Zealand toxicologist estimates that an infant exclusively fed soy formula receives the estrogenic equivalent of at least five birth control pills per day.

In the U.S., one percent of all girls now show signs of puberty, such as breast development or pubic hair, before the age of three; by age eight, almost 15 percent of white girls and just under half of African-American girls have one or both of these characteristics, according to a recent study reported in the journal Pediatrics. The astronomical rates of early development in African American girls maybe explained by the use of soy formula in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which supplies free formula to low income mothers.

Early maturation in girls is frequently a harbinger for problems with the reproductive system later in life, including failure to menstruate, infertility and breast cancer.

Cancer Research which found that genistein, one of the isoflavones in soy, was more carcinogenic than the synthetic estrogen DES when exposure occurred during “critical periods of differentiation,” such as during infancy. Medical professionals insisted that DES was safe for pregnant women until they discovered that women whose mothers took DES suffered from very high rates of cervical cancer.

The authors of the Cancer Research study concluded that;

. . . the use of soy-based infant formulas in the absence of medical necessity and the marketing of soy products designed to appeal to children should be closely examined.

So, should we grill it then?

Not such a good idea either.


In a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine accused KFC of violating California’s Proposition 65, which requires businesses to warn customers if they are being exposed to substances that cause cancer or birth defects.

The chemical cited in the lawsuit, known as PhIP, is a byproduct of the grilling process and was added to the state’s list of carcinogens in 1994. The doctors group said an independent laboratory found the substance in every one of 12 grilled chicken samples bought from six East Bay KFC restaurants in May, 2009.

Grilled chicken is the largest source of PhIP, a potent carcinogen,

says Kristie Sullivan, M.P.H., lead author of the new study and a toxicologist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

We found this carcinogen in every single sample of grilled chicken taken from restaurants in every part of California.

PhIP is one of a group of carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs), and it is a known mutagen that can cause DNA damage that can lead to cancer. In human studies investigating well-done meat consumption and cancer risk, the highest risk is for cancers of the prostate, colon/rectum, and breast. In 2005, the federal government officially added HCA’s to its list of anticipated human carcinogens. Even small amounts can increase a person’s risk of developing cancer.(12)

People consuming PhIP and similar compounds are more likely to develop cancer, compared to other people. Ms. Sullivan said;

“You don’t want fried chicken, obviously, with all its fat and cholesterol, but it turns out that grilled chicken is peppered with chemicals clearly linked to cancer.”

Overall, the consumption of broiler chicken in the U.S. does not appear to be a recipe for good health.

Any alternatives?

Fu-Hung Hsieh, an MU professor of biological engineering and food science in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and the College of Engineering, is leading the project to create a low-cost soy substitute for chicken. His research, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Illinois-Missouri Biotechnology Alliance, has led to a process that makes the soy product simulate the fibrous qualities of a chicken breast.

“Early tests provided some of the fibrous texture to the final product, but it tasted more like turkey,” Hsieh said.

“In order to produce a more realistic product, we had to tweak the process and add extra fiber to give the soy a stringy feeling that tears into irregular, coarse fibers similar to chicken.”

To create the soy chicken, Hsieh starts with a soy protein extracted from soy flour. The soy then goes through an extrusion cooking process that uses water, heat and pressure while pushing the mixture through a cylinder with two augers.

“This particular soy substitute is different because we are working with a higher moisture content, which is up to 75 percent,” Hsieh said. “The high moisture content is what gives the soy a very similar texture to chicken — in addition to the appearance.”

Hsieh’s research has been published in the Journal of Food and Agricultural Chemistry, Journal of Food Science, and Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society. The next step in Hsieh’s research will be to taste-test various texture combinations and make final refinements to the formula.

However, let’s hope this is not a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. Let’s hope Hsieh’s  high-tech processing method not only removes the anti-nutrients and toxins that are naturally present in soybeans, but also removes toxic and carcinogenic residues created by the high temperatures and high pressure.

The study is being funded by U.S. Department of Agriculture, so let’s not raise our hopes too high.

So, you have all the clues.

Any guesses as to ‘Whodunit’?

The U.S. chicken industry?  The soy industry?  The  fast food industry?

Or are all three partners in crime?

You’ll have to read the whole story to know for sure………

See related articles

‘Culprits of Cancer’

KFC and Salt – Depraved Heart Murder?


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Founder, ‘Heroin and Cornflakes’ blog.


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