andrew schneider investigates

June 15, 2009

Bye guys. This blog is being replaced with

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Schneider @ 17:57

I’m moving. Again. is being replaced with my new site,

Although I know how to dig through documents and get bad guys to confess their misdeeds, I’m learning as I go about the best ways to use this new medium. And one of the things I’ve learned — especially from many of you — is that the name I had was too long, too easy to misspell and just generally a pain. So we’re changing it to Short, easy to remember and ready for you to check out.

You’ll find the same investigative coverage of health, environmental and workplace issues from me. And you’ll also see investigative work from my colleague Ben Shors, a journalism professor at Washington State University and a very talented environmental reporter.

So,  if you want to keep up on the latest hot facts, you can now find them on

I’m hoping that I’ll see you on the  other side.come

a. schneider

June 14, 2009

Tweeting the revolution

Filed under: Random observations — Andrew Schneider @ 14:05

I’ve been doing journalism for decades, several of them. I covered my first two or three wars with the keys of a battered portable typewriter.

It never crasked but the spell-checker is lousy

It never crashed but the spell-checker is lousy

I not only understand change, I covet the ability to get our words out instantly and to a world-wide audience that most journalists never dreamed of reaching a few years ago.

This morning, I saw something in the news that hammered home how deeply cyber communications have permeated our cells.

For centuries, governments and ruling powers have tried to control how much their citizens knew about the news of the day, especially during battles, coups d’état, revolutions, uprisings and episodes of political upheaval. I have watched this, some times far too closely, in Central and South America, the Caribbean, Asia, the Middle East and twice in Africa.

The first rule was always to seize and close the newspapers, then silence the radio stations and, in later years, stifle the television broadcasts. This was always pretty easy because those with the guns and machetes knew where the offices were.

Today, gagging dissemination of news and comment is far more complex.

Just read the following two sentences from an Associated Press dispatch from Tehran on crowds taking to the streets protesting yesterday’s vote and claiming that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had stolen the presidential election.

Deep into the AP story the reporter wrote:

“Authorities pushed back with ominous measures apparently seeking to undercut liberal voices: jamming text messages, blocking pro-Mousavi Web sites and Facebook and cutting off mobile phones in Tehran.

“With the Internet and mobile texting down, some Iranians turned to Twitter to voice their views.”

The government made getting the word out more difficult, but they failed to stop it. Cyberspace over Iran is very much alive with what people think.

June 11, 2009

Health risks from silver nanoparticles a growing threat to consumers and workers.

Silver nanoparticles, untested for safety, are being used in a growing number of children’s toys, babies’ bottles, cosmetics, dishwashers, underwear and hundreds of other items.
A report issued today says that consumers and workers who make the products may be at risk.

Silver nano particles   Photo ACA

Silver nano particles Photo ACA

The report, authored by Friends of the Earth and Health Care Without Harm Europe, details what they call “the growing public health threat posed by nano-silver particles in consumer products.”

“What we’ve learned is alarming,” said Ian Illuminato, one of the report’s authors.

“Major corporations are putting nano-silver into a wide variety of consumer products with virtually no oversight, and there are potentially serious health consequences as a result. The workers who manufacture these products, the families that use them, and the environment are all at risk.”

Human consumption of silver is not new and medical historians have traced its health benefits back

Ian Illuminato, Friends of the Earth

Ian Illuminato, Friends of the Earth

more than a century. At that time, the literature reports, people had ready access to beneficial silver in their diet because it was plentiful in surface and ground waters.

“What we’re concerned about is when the silver is scaled to nano size because evidence shows that it is far more potent. That potency – the impact on human health – is what is we don’t yet know,” Illuminato told me.

His concern is shared by other scientists who also worry that nanosilver doesn’t distinguish between good and bad bacteria. It kills all bacteria, even the good bacteria that humans and animals need to survive.

“We are playing with fire, especially at a time when anti-bacterial resistance is an ever increasing medical problem globally,” said report co-author Dr. Rye Senjen, of Australia.

“Do we really need to coat cups, bowls and cutting boards, personal care products, children’s toys and infant products in nano-silver for ‘hygienic’ reasons?” he asked.

The  Korean manufacturer Samsung made the first clothes washer with a nanosilver-coated drum and said it would kill over 600 different bacteria.

Nanoparticles are one billionth of a meter in size or, as one scientist told me at a nano-in-food conference this week in California, “Slice a human hair lengthwise into a 100 slivers and a single one of those is what we’re dealing with. We are manipulating single molecules and atoms.”

Andrew Maynard

Andrew Maynard

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, one of the best known centers for nanotech policy research, presented testimony before Congress last year and cautioned that hundreds of products with nano particles are on the market, with three to five new ones added every week.

Andrew Maynard, the lead scientist for the Project, told me in an telephone interview from the Regulating Nanotechnology in Food and Consumer Products conference in Brussels yesterday, that the report raises some uncertainties that must be addressed.

“There is no indication that silver at the nano scale goes wild in the body. However, it is known that silver becomes more toxic at the nano level,” Maynard explained, adding, “That does not mean it always does more damage.

“More research must be done.”

A coalition of consumer protection, public health and environmental groups filed a petition with the Environmental Protection Agency demanding the agency halt the sale of consumer products containing silver nanoparticles

The petition called for the EPA to:

* Determine the potential human health and environmental hazards from nanosilver with nano-specific toxicity data requirements, testing and risk assessments.

* Clarify that nano-silver is a pesticide and thus must undergo the rigorous and extensive testing process involved in registering a pesticide. Moreover, products with nano-silver must carry a pesticide label.

* Take immediate action to prohibit the sale of nano-silver products as illegal pesticide products with unapproved health benefit claims.

The authors of the report say that EPA is not “doing near enough” to address the hazard.

“This report should be a kick in the pants to EPA to start fining companies that use nanosilver without going through the registration process,” Dr. Jennifer Sass, senior scientist and nano specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, who is also speaking at the Brussel’s meeting told me in an email.

EPA says it is ready to take action if asked.

“The EPA is prepared to address the nanosilver issue but nobody has applied to the EPA with a product. It hasn’t happened,” said Dale Kemery, an agency spokesman.

Nanoized silver is not the only metal that worries regulators and the public health community. Carbon nanotubes, nano zerovalent iron, cerium oxide and others are on some government hot lists.

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control has ordered all manufacturers who manufacture, import, sell or use nano material with those metals to supply the department with extensive information on their source, use, transport, and disposal.

According to the EPA and FDA, they have no plans  to collect similar information.

The debate, to some extent, centers on semantics. Pesticides kill bugs and other things and their use is controlled by the government.

The Nanotechnology Industries Association and other trade groups insist that nanosilver is antimicrobial – it goes after germs – and is not a pesticide.

June 8, 2009

Too many Chinese food producers add poisons to food to increase profits. Will new food safety law end the adulteration?

Many food exports from China may be dangerous, but some of the tricks used to fool Chinese shoppers are even more treacherous.

Everyone knows about the about the tens of thousands of Chinese infants struck down but kidney-destroying melamine in their milk and the 60,000 dogs and cats worldwide who died after eating it in the pet food.  Here are some other examples to consider:

Stinky tofu (yes, a real name) is a very popular street food throughout many Asian countries. Its aroma, which can bring the weak to their knees, comes from lengthy and thus costly fermentation.  Chinese food authorities found that some tofu producers created the reeking odor with rancid water and sewage. The desirable dark color came from ten illegal chemical dyes.

Chicken and duck farmers added Sudan Red Dye IV to the feed used in their poultry operations. The dye, a cancer-causing agent banned in food in many countries, makes the yolks a vivid bright reddish orange, and is sought after as a special and costly treat.

Some of the Chinese verdors at the IFT expo.  (c) a. schneider

Some of the Chinese verdors at the IFT expo. (c) a. schneider

Another egg fraud centers on another foul-smelling but very expensive and coveted traditional delicacy called a 1000-year-old egg. They’re really not preserved for ten centuries, but more like 100 to 150 days, according to a cook who gave me a bite of one in Vancouver. She said they normally are buried in a mixture of soil, lime, ashes, salt and green tea. Eventually, the egg white turns a gooey brown in color, and the yolk becomes dark grayish-green.  But people love it.

Money hungry phony egg producers eliminate the waiting time and just add lead oxide to alter the eggs. However, the chemical can destroy blood, the central nervous system, kidneys and other organs as well as causing birth defects and convulsions.

Other inventive food suppliers, instead of using a higher quality flour, have been caught adding alum to strengthen noodles and borax to preserve rice cakes, while fish farmers use the cancer and birth defect-causing antibiotic and antifungal agent Malachite green to control disease in the fish they sell. Of course, there are the beekeepers who taint their honey by using illegal antibiotics in their hives.

“Everyone of these food adulterations can be attributed to economic motivation,” said Dr. Yao-wen Huang, a professor of food science at the University of Georgia.  Most of the appealing examples mentioned above are his, and he and his colleague Hong Zhuang, a research food technologist for the USDA, were speaking at the International Institute of Food Technologists on food safety challenges in China.

The existing food safety system is not effective for a variety of reasons, including that 17 different bureaucracies work under the food and drug safety umbrella, and they each jealously guard their power,  Huang explained but added, that 8o percent of China’s food producers are small operations employing fewer than 10 workers and most pay little attention to the few safety requirement that exist.

Not only is enforcement convoluted, but also the blurred lines of responsibility and weak investigatory skills are further hampered by corruption, with some inspectors and their bosses take bribes in exchange for favors, the professor told me.

Prof. Yao-Wen Huang

Prof. Yao-Wen Huang

On June 1, China imposed a new food safety law.

Qin Zhenkui, president of the Chinese Academy of Inspection and Quarantine, believes the comprehensive requirements of the new law will make a difference.

Zhuang presented remarks from Zhenkui, which detailed the increased controls on food producers. These include inspection and licensing of all food manufacturers as well as rigorous requirements and previous state approval for all additives.

Food inspectors are not permitted to grant any exceptions to the rules, Zhuang explained.

This could eliminate, or at least reduce, the bribes for not seeing wrongdoing, but is that enough?

“The law should be an improvement,” Huang told me. “Everyone in the supply chain should be forced to get involved in ensuring the safety of the food — from the farmers, to the processors, the transporters, exporters and the importers themselves.

“’I didn’t know’ can no longer be an acceptable answer from anyone when it comes to food safety.”

This morning I stopped by nine exhibits of Chinese companies exporting food and asked representatives what they thought of their country’s two week-old food safety law.

Five sales agents told me that they’d never heard of it. The remaining four said the were forbidden to speak with the press, but one added, “China only sells the highest quality food. The problems in the press are fabricated.”

He wouldn’t give me his name.

Better eating through chemistry.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Schneider @ 06:51

There are two gigantic professional food organizations that gather their members each year to compare notes and discuss what’s new.

The International Association of Culinary Professionals musters its legions of chefs, recipe creators, food stylists, restaurateurs, educators and writers. They debate and discuss what new styles of cooking, innovations in cuts and seasoning of beef, pork, lamb, poultry, goats and seafood of all types, and treatments of fruits, veggies and salads will be appearing on menus throughout the world.
IFT Books
The other culinary blow out is the international conference and food expo of the Institute for Food Technologists, which is meeting here in Anaheim this week. Jumping from meeting to meeting and cruising the poster sessions, it appears to me that safety is this group’s most important product. Scientists of almost every conceivable specialty gave scores of presentations on making food safer and keeping it safe, which is what the food developers, producers and processors they work for must have.

I walked around the exposition floors where about 1,200 companies are showing their products and services and checked out what was being touted as new and better. Most were additives.

Make up your own mind if this bothers you or if you realize that it’s just a necessary fact of life in the food industry.

Here are just some of the additives I could recognize. There were:
Acids and alkaline agents.
Anti-caking agents.
Antimicrobial agents.
Bulking agents.
Bleaching agents.
Brining, pickling and curing chemicals.
Fat replacements.
Flavoring agents, hundreds of different ones.

I only made it around half of the display hall, but it’s obvious that lots of substances are added to what we eat. I wonder whether these additives deal with safety of the food or marketability?

June 7, 2009

World’s top food scientists debate keeping food safe, tasty, exciting and available

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Schneider @ 11:05

I’m in Anaheim, Calif., and I’m not visiting Disney’s mouse. For the next few days, I’ll be attending the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual international conference.  It’s not nearly as boring as it sounds.

There are about 15,000 food scientists, microbiologists, engineers, chemists, educators, government regulators, chefs and a score or more of other PhD-toting specialists from well over 50 countries.  What they all have in common, besides being in this hunk of California, is that just about every one of them is obsessed with food – its safety, flavor, shelf life, appeal, delivery and just about every other aspect of food creation, processing and marketing that makes edibles leap into your shopping cart.


Sitting at the bar in the convention hotel – the Hilton —  a cluster of the attendees were sputtering in their drinks last night as one scientist said he felt really at home in this hotel because the water in his room was as chalky white as gunk that came out of the hand-dug well in his rural farm in Somalia. But, he said, the water of his childhood tasted better.

Knowing that they had a hotel full of scientists whose life’s work is to prevent and detect bad things in liquids and foodstuff, you might have thought that the hotel staff would have been more candid about the nasty-tasting, opaque water that squirts from their facets.

Fresh from the Hilton tap

Fresh from the Hilton tap

Two front desk managers feigned amazement when I asked about the weird water, both saying they’d never heard of it but they’re sure that it’s safe. However, it wasn’t a surprise to the housekeepers, bartenders and a telephone operator,who all said: “Whatever you do, don’t drink the water.”

Of course, the Hilton was helpful, a flavor scientist said sarcastically . “They told me that room service would gladly bring me as much of the $6 a liter ‘artesian water’ as I wanted to  buy,” he repeated.

Don’t let me leave the impression that all the attendees do is drink (there are beaches 20 minutes away.)  There are 1,400 scientific lectures, seminars and symposiums such as:  the oxicative stability of raw chicken breast and beef loin; the handling of blue pigments in crushed garlic cloves; the antioxidant capacity of traditional rye breads; PCBs and organochlorine insecticides in fish oil being sold in Canada, and many, many more.

One of the main reasons that I came is that there are about 12 hours of lectures on nanotechnology in food. By the time I attend them all, I hope to be able to spell the word.

I admit that this is not beach reading but these are the people who work to keep our food tasty and safe.

More on how they do that later.

June 6, 2009

Silver nanoparticles may be a new life saver.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Schneider @ 06:51
Prof. Dash

Prof. Dash

Physicians have figured out that nanoparticles of silver may be a new way to prevent blood clots and some coronary artery disease, heart attack and stroke.

Dr. Debabrata Dash and colleagues at India’s Institute of Medical Sciences at Banaras Hindu University said they pursued the anti-clotting study because “patients urgently need new anti-thrombotic agents because traditionally prescribed medications too-often cause dangerous bleeding.”

The scientists found that when low levels of silver nano particles – only 1/50,000th the diameter of a human hair – were injected into the bloodstream laboratory mice, it reduced the ability of platelets to clump together by as much as 40 percent.

I asked a couple of cardiologists in Seattle and Boston about the reduction, and both said, if reproducible in humans, it could be a very big deal.

“Nanosilver appears to possess dual significant properties critically helpful to the health of mankind — antibacterial and antiplatelet — which together can have unique utilities, for example in coronary stents,” 
Dash said.

In email, Dash said that while the results are important, more work needs to be done.

When asked if he and his team were worried about harmful side effects from the injection of the silver particles.

“ Yes, the concerns remain as we have not carried out any human toxicity studies,” Dash told me but added that in the mice testing  In mouse model the nanoparticles “appeared to be quite safe. . . “

“However, like any other drug,” the doctor said, “one has to weigh between the benefits and side effects of nano silver before considering a therapeutic use.”

Dash’s study will be published later this month in the American Chemical Society’s peer-reviewed scientific journal Nano.

Here’s a link if you want to see the study.

June 4, 2009

Melamine dishes, bowls, cups and saucers can be harmful when used to serve certain food, according to health officials.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Schneider @ 06:56

Sometimes there are things that we should just stop using.

Take melamine for an example.

The plastic-like substance has been used for tens of thousands of products such as Formica countertops, whiteboards, tiles and fabric. And let’s not forget the scratched and stained tableware from the 50s and 60s called Melmac that still magically migrates from one yard sale to the next.

But tens of millions of pieces of melamine eating-ware are still being produced, mostly in Chinese factories, and sold throughout the world.

This week, health officials in Indonesia ran tests of 62 samples of melamine plates, bowls, spoons and forks. The head of the country’s Food and Drug Monitoring Agency said that “30 of them released formaldehyde when used for anything hot, watery or acidic,” the Jakarta Globe reported.

In Korea, food scientists tested eight different brands of Chinese-made melamine dinnerware in January and February and found that 88 percent of the plates and bowls released formaldehyde when heated in a microwave.

And last week in Hong Kong, officials with the Consumer Council told the Hong Kong Standard that it had checked 300 melamine products from 20 household goods and chain stores, and only 5 percent of samples were properly labeled to warn customers not to use them in microwaves.

The head of the Indonesian FDA said, “Melamine resin products were relatively safe to use for some dry foods or cookies,” according to the paper.

German scientists developed melamine in the early 1800s. Today, worker safety warning information affixed to barrels and drums of melamine caution that the material is “harmful if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Chronic exposure may cause cancer or reproductive damage.”

Food scientists in the U.S. say that there are melamine products in which it’s safe to cook and serve, but because of inadequate labeling it’s almost impossible to tell the safe products from those that can release formaldehyde.

Importers estimate that millions of pieces of melamine eating ware is imported from Asia into the U.S. and Canada every year.

The Chinese created havoc with melamine in 2007 when it was added to pet food, killing thousands of dogs and cats throughout the world. Last year, over 50,000 infants in China were poisoned when milk producers added the compound to fraudulently boost the protein level in milk, thus getting higher prices.

U.S., Canadian and European manufacturers lost millions when they had to toss out thousands of products ¬— including the most popular candies and snacks and beverage mixes — because they used melamine-tainted dry milk from China in their processes.

May 31, 2009

The cult graffiti artist who did the official, unofficial, “hope” portrait of the Obama campaign has gone to the dogs. Maybe a few cats also.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Schneider @ 08:07

adopt poster
A reader emailed me and asked if it were true that Shepard Fairey, the wonderfully creative street artist whose stylistic portrait of the president became the icon of the campaign, had done a spinoff to aid dogs languishing in pet adoption shelters.

Yep, here it is. I’m told that he even signed a few dozen to help spark donations to adopt-a-pet.

May 29, 2009

As money becomes tighter, organic food becomes expendable for many.

I’ve been hearing from organic food producers, especially dairy farmers, who say that after years of soaring growth and markets for all they can produce, the reality of dealing with rough economic times is painfully hitting home.

(c) photo by a. schneider
(c) photo by a. schneider

They say that sales they could always count on, are falling off.

But many shopper are more carefully weighing the presumed quality of organics with the cost.

“I want the best for my children but I know I can get this for half the price at the chain groceries. Four or five dollars make a difference these days,” said a woman I chatted with yesterday at Whole Foods who was holding a head of organic lettuce in one hand and tomatoes in the other.

I’m going to hit some farmer’s markets this weekend to talk to some producers but as one farmer told me recently, he’d spent so much money bringing his farm up to organic standards that even a drop of five or 10 percent in his sales can close him down.

If you want to read more on this, Katie Zezma wrote a really well-researched piece in today’s New York Times.  Here’s a link to it.

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