andrew schneider investigates

February 29, 2008

EPA bows to chemical lobby again.

At the request of chemical industry lobbyists, the Environmental Protection Agency removed the chair of an expert peer review panel charged with setting safe exposure levels for a toxic fire retardant that contaminates human blood and breast milk, this according to a report from the Environmental Working Group.

The panel was convened by EPA to report to the agency on environment and health concerns of Decabromodiphenyl or Deca. It is a spin off from chemical fire retardants and used in electronic components and other consumer products. The chemical has been shown to be a developmental neurotoxin.

It was the American Chemical Council, the industry’s major lobbyist, that pressured EPA to remove Dr. Deborah Rice from the panel.

Rice, retired EPA scientist, is credited by many in the public health community for doing the leading work in researching Deca’s toxicity to the brain and nervous system during development. Now with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Rice also spearheaded a regulatory review mandated by Maine law, to investigate the feasibility of replacing Deca with less toxic chemicals.

The lobbyists called her actions in Maine a conflict of interest and one of the reasons for her dismissal. However, EWG notes that “numerous scientists with direct financial ties to the manufacturers of chemicals under review, or with publications and public statements touting the safety of chemicals they are evaluating, remain as active participants on these panels.”

Not only did EPA remove Rice, but it edited out all of her comments from the report submitted by the panel.

EWG and two scientists in EPA with whom I spoke this morning, said the omission of the Rice’s comments from the review document could result in a significantly weaker safety standard for the chemical, which EPA intends to propose at the end of March 2008.

The two senior scientists said that Rice is just one of nine “leading authorities” that industry has forced off vital EPA panels in the past 18 months.


February 28, 2008

If it’s Parmesan, it must be from Parma.

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Food labeling,Food Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 13:30

Shaved or grated over almost anything or eaten by the chunk, the nutty-sweet, slightly salty, seductive flavor of Parmesan cheese, especially Parmigiano-Reggiano, is worth going to war over or at least, fighting in court to protect it.

The European Court of Justice seems to understand the value of the Italian delicacy that has been produced for more than eight centuries near Parma. This week it ruled that “Only cheeses bearing the protected designation of origin (PDO) ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’ can be sold under the name ‘Parmesan.”

The high court, located in Luxembourg, rejected the idea that “Parmesan” is a generic name undeserving of protection, reports Deutsche Welle.

Italian food producers are very concerned about counterfeiting of the food treasurers and agricultural officials believes that one out of every four Italian products sold abroad is an imitation, the Italian press reports.

The PDO system or “protected designation of origin,” gives the cheese the same protection benefiting other European products, such as French Camembert, which must come from Normandy, or champagne, which must come from the French region of the same name. Only products made in the place were the foods were first created can be sold under the traditional name.

Fine Cooking magazine offers this suggestion for getting the right stuff: Look at the rind. An authentic wheel has the words “Parmigiano Reggiano” stenciled closely and repeatedly around the rind of the entire wheel so that every piece of rind will bear part of these markings. The label signifies that certain standards have been met in the production of the cheese.

USDA loophole led to recall

Filed under: Environmental health issues,FDA,Food Safety,Public health legislation — Andrew Schneider @ 09:11

The Humane Society of the United States has filed a suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture to close a dangerous loophole in the agency’s regulations that permitted potentially sick cows into the nation’s food supply

It was the humane society’s investigation that documented extreme cruelty to non-ambulatory or “downer” cattle at a slaughterhouse in Chino, Calif. This led to the largest beef recall in history of 144 million pounds of beef–much of which was fed to school children in at least 40 states.

The society says because downer cattle are at a heightened risk for bovine spongiform encephalopathy or “mad cow disease” and other foodborne pathogens, USDA issued an emergency rule in 2004 to prevent downed cattle from being slaughtered for human consumption. However, last year, the agency quietly reversed course and relaxed its rules to permit some crippled cows to be slaughtered for human consumption.

The Humane Society investigator taped the slaughter plant’s employees routinely beating cows to try to make them stand, repeatedly electrocuting cows in the face and eyes, ramming animals with forklift blades and dragging them by chains.

Society officials are testifying before Congress today on the need to close this loophole.

February 27, 2008

New process reduces allergens in eggs

Filed under: Environmental health issues,Food - good, bad, weird,Food Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 17:42

The U.S. Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry will be publishing a study next month that describes a new process to greatly reduce allergens in eggs, reports Linda Rano at Food The process could greatly benefit food manufacturers, allowing for the production of safer and more specialized food products for egg allergy sufferers.

The food newsletter says that in the study, chemists from Germany and Switzerland describe how during “a nine-step process” they exposed raw eggs to a combination of high heat and enzymes to break down their main allergens. The researchers then tested the reduced-allergen egg against blood serum collected from people with an egg allergy.

The study reports that the modified egg product is 100 times less allergenic than raw egg. In addition, the scientists say that the modified egg does not significantly alter flavor and texture when used in various products.

Rano reported that hen’s egg is one of the most frequent causes of adverse reactions to food in children, and this may be carried through into adult life. Egg allergies can cause severe stomach pains and rashes. In rare cases, death can occur.

Another shot at finally banning asbestos

On Thursday, a House committee is going to try to introduce a law to ban the manufacture, import or use of a substance that has killed hundreds of thousands going back to the Roman Empire. A rational person might think that it would just breeze through Congress to the cheers of all. Recent history says that is not so.

Sen. Patty Murray deserves a medal, for endurance if nothing else, because she and her staff battled for almost six years to get the votes and industry okay to pass a ban on all asbestos in the U.S. like most of the rest of the grownup countries.

In the fall, it finally happened. The full senate passed Murray’s bill and those government physicians and toxicologists and civilian public health experts who worked so long and hard to help Murray, led the cheering. But the joy was short lived.

Sen. Patty Murray

When the same witnesses who testified for Murray read the actual language in the Senate-passed bill they found it wasn’t a complete ban. To get Republican support and to appease industry lobbyists, staff lawyers and investigators for Murray and co-sponsor Barbara Boxer snipped, slashed and watered down the strong, protective language of the original bill. As passed, the legislation now permits the existence, use and sale of material containing levels of asbestos that has filled graveyards with miners and consumers of asbestos-contaminated talc, taconite, vermiculite and other products including imported toys and play clay.

The proposed House ban bill being introduced tomorrow by the Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials is said to address many of the shortcomings in the Senate legislation. (more…)

February 26, 2008

Unsafe food debated on Capitol Hill

Filed under: FDA,Food Safety,Public health legislation,Risks to children — Andrew Schneider @ 13:29

The House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, trying to find an answer to the growing reports of tainted and deadly food, found themselves dealing with a full plate of potentially lethal problems today.

E. coli in bagged spinach sickened 204 people and killed three.

Salmonella found in tomatoes sickened 183 people.

Lettuce contaminated with E. coli at Taco Bell and Taco John restaurants sickened 152 people.

Peter Pan peanut butter contaminated with Salmonella sickened 425 people.

100 brands of tainted pet food were recalled after sickening and killing thousands of pets.

A nationwide recall of fresh spinach occurred following discovery of salmonella in a test batch.

Frozen pot pies carrying salmonella were recalled after illnesses were reported in 31 States.

And, of course, the nearly 144 million pounds of beef were recalled by Westland/Hallmark Meat Packing Company after being determined to be unfit for human consumption.

Lawmakers heard testimony from representative of the nation’s largest food producers and a Seattle lawyer who has handled hundreds of victims of a broken food safety system.

William Marler


February 25, 2008

Still waiting for Grace criminal trial

Filed under: Asbestos,Environmental health issues — Andrew Schneider @ 21:26

W.R. Grace gets more time in Libby asbestos case
Montana’s News, 2/25/08)

Lawyers with W.R. Grace are getting more time to file an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, as well as to perhaps settle pre-trial issues in the government’s criminal case dealing with Libby asbestos.

If the high court accepts the case, then it would make a final ruling on whether the government can use certain evidence at trial.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the evidence can be used and W.R. Grace is expected to ask the high court to review that decision.

Originally the company had until next week to file its petition, but Justice Anthony Kennedy has granted an extension until April 14th.

It’s now been more than three years since the U.S. government filed criminal charges against W.R. Grace.

Zonolite kills on both sides of border

Filed under: Asbestos,Environmental health issues — Andrew Schneider @ 11:31

Five members of one First Nation family died from exposure to asbestos fibers in Zonolite insulation that the Canadian government installed in their homes and on military bases, A surviving family member, who also has asbestosis, is demanding that that the government warn others of the dangers.

Her efforts to sue W.R. Grace & Co., which produced the Zonolite with asbestos-contaminated vermiculite ore from a Montana mine, has been thwarted, reports the Winnipeg Sun. The newspaper says that Grace had filed for bankruptcy protection. The company, based in Columbia, Md., has said its worldwide operations are doing well. When the suit was filed the P-I reported that Grace took the action to protect itself from suits from from survivors of thousands of miners and consumers who were killed or sickened by exposure to the product.

Les Skramstad, an activist and miner in Libby. Mont.,who fought against W.R. Grace. The photo was taken shortly before his death last year at a memorial to others who died from exposure to the asbestos in the Zonolite. By Andrew Schneider

Use of the lethal insulation is not limited to Canada, The U.S. government says that the dangerous product is still in as many as 35 million homes and businesses, but also refuses to institute a promised “aggressive campaign” to warn of the risk they face.

Raven ThunderSky, who is originally from Poplar River, Man., filed a lawsuit in 2005 against Grace and its various affiliates, as well as the Canadian government. The Sun reported that since 1996, ThunderSky’s sisters and both her parents have died of cancer and asbestosis. The federal Indian Affairs department built her family’s home in the 1960s insulated with Zonolite, which has since been found to contain harmful asbestos.

In her suit, ThunderSky asks that an information package go out across Canada informing people about Zonolite and how to check for the form of cancer it may cause.

The Sun said that ThunderSky’s lawyer recently told her Grace’s bankruptcy filing may soon force her lawsuit to be lumped in with a U.S. class action suit. This would come despite the fact her family’s deaths occurred in Canada and the company’s Canadian subsidiaries and the Canadian government are named as defendants.

“I want the prime minister to call an inquiry before I’m fed to a foreign court system,” ThunderSky said. “I want to know how it is they allowed five of my family members — five Canadians — to die alone and abandoned.

Grace routinely declines comment with is spokesmen citing pending criminal trials and gag orders from assorted judges.

California meat packer may never reopen.

Filed under: FDA,Food Safety,Risks to children — Andrew Schneider @ 10:51

The meat packing company that once earned the government’s title of the school lunch program’s Supplier of the Year will probably close its doors for good. Charges of excessive cruelty to the cattle it processed triggered the biggest meat recall in U.S. history and had school districts in Seattle, Spokane and throughout the rest of the country destroying millions of pounds of beef this month, reports The Wall Street Journal.

A video made by an undercover humane society investigator showed workers at the plant trying to make sick or injured cattle stand up with electrical-shock devices, forklifts and high-pressure water hoses. Cattle that can’t walk or stand on their own are generally banned from the nation’s food supply. Such “downer” cows can be sources of mad-cow disease, which can cause a rare but fatal brain disorder in humans

The Journal said Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co., one of the biggest suppliers of beef to the national school-lunch program, probably will shut down permanently, according to the company’s general manager, Anthony Magidow.

February 22, 2008

New study affirms diacetyl’s harm

Public health investigators trying to determine the risk to workers and consumers exposed to vapors from the chemical butter flavoring diacetyl have some new information with which to work. Scientists from the National Institute of Environmental Health and Duke University have published the results of an elaborate study which exposed lab animals to diacetyl for various times and at different concentrations.

The 47-page Diacetyl study, which is to be published in the Journal of the Society of Toxicology, was led by Dr, Daniel Morgan of the National Toxicology Program and colleagues from NIEH and Duke. The study also examined acetoin, another chemical group found in flavoring.

The study confirms and further details what physicians and other occupational medicine specialists who have diagnosed and treated workers with the lung-destroying disease believed to be the case: Low levels of diacetyl can damage lung tissue. Morgan’s study details extensive damage done to the mice. That fact that humans breathe more through their mouth than the lab animals indicated to some who have read the report that the harm of low-dose exposure to humans can be even more severe.

At LabCor, a Seattle analytical laboratory, analyst Eryn Knaack heats cooking oils and butter substitutes to see how much diacetyl is release. Photo by Andrew Schneider

Some of the exposures to which the animals were exposed and caused harm, were similar the levels of diacetyl vapors that laboratory testing commissioned by the Seattle P-I measured when cooking oils and butter substitutes used by professional cooks were heated.

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