andrew schneider investigates

March 30, 2008

Dioxin in your mozzarella?

Filed under: Environmental health issues,Food - good, bad, weird,Food labeling — Andrew Schneider @ 23:00

Italian farmers and food producers thought things were going well. They recently won battles to prevent mislabeling prosciutto that didn’t come from Parma and in February, the European Court of Justice ruled that only cheeses bearing the protected designation of origin (PDO) ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’ can be sold under the name ‘Parmesan” But now, an issue of whether their mozzarella cheese is free of toxic chemicals has the European Union threatening to ban the sale of the cheese.


Mozzarella cheese

The concern first surfaced around Christmas when a garbage strike near Naples had health authorities screening residents for dioxin contamination amid accusations that toxic garbage was being dumped illegally by the mafia-controlled garbage industry in the area, the Italian media reported. Italian agriculture officials said there was no problem even though buffalo grazed on the land where industrial waste was dumped.
According to Wikielling the imported buffalo mozzarella recently, but Craig Wilson, Costco’s VP for food safety, told me that he had no indication that the cheese from the tainted producers reached his store shelves.

“But we are continuing to check with the importers and are watching the situation closely,” said Wilson.


Cheese makers logo

The soft, delicate and subtly flavored mozzarella made from buffalo milk has a fresh, stringy texture and a porcelain-white color.

The buffalo cheese is produced in the Italian provinces of Caserta and Salerno and part of Benevento, Naples, Frosinone, Latina and Rome.

According to Wikipwedia, mozzarella di bufala cheese is not new to Italy. References to cheese products made from buffalo milk go back to the beginning of the twelfth century. Buffalo were widely used as a draught animal in plowing compact and watery terrains.

March 28, 2008

Keeping sellers of recalled food secret

Filed under: FDA,Food labeling,Food Safety,Public health legislation — Andrew Schneider @ 11:11

One could argue that secrecy is important for some government operations, but it’s hard to understand the logic behind the USDA being told to conceal the names of the stores that sell food recalled because of health risks.

For the most part, all a consumer can get from the USDA or the Food and Drug Administration is that a recall is under way of product A, B or C. Rarely does the government disclose which retailers might be selling the recalled products.

For example, this morning the FDA sent out two notices that a firm in Southern California and another in Miami were recalling more Honduran cantaloupe that might be contaminated with salmonella. The melons from the Miami company are being sold throughout the country under various brand names and different packaging. The California products are even more difficult to track because they are diced and sliced and mixed with other fruits in a variety of wrappings and labels. Shortly before noon, Chiquita, issued its recall for the same Central American fruit.
Apparently not everyone
None of the warnings listed which stores were selling their recalled products so I tried to call one of the companies directly.

After about 25-minutes on hold I spoke to a Chiquita customer service representative who said she didn’t know and told me call their corporate headquarters. There, a very polite operator said no one was available but connected me to a someone’s voice mail where I was promised a prompt call back. We’ll see what happens.

UPDATE: By late afternoon, Ed Loyd, a spokesman for Chiquita, sent me an email saying “While we quickly provided a list of our customers to the FDA . . . it is a proprietary list and as such not one that we would provide publicly.” But he says he warned “100 percent of our customers.”

Shortly before 5 p.m., the FDA sent out yet another recall alert for the possibly tainted fruit, this one in the neighborhood.

Spokane Produce Inc. is recalling Garden Patch, Yokes, and Rosauers Classic labels of various products of fresh cut and cut fruits containing cantaloupe,” said Dan Petek of the company which serves stores and military facilities in Washington, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Wyoming.

Petek said he notified all his customers last Saturday, the same day FDA issued the initial warning. Not only did he name the stores that handled his products, his notification listed each packageing and size for every product that contained the questionable melon and the “sell by” date so customers would know what they’re dealing with, he said.

But not every food supplier is as open as Petek so let’s get back to why the government should release the names of retailers when a serious recall is issued.

The pressure on the agencies to conceal the retailers is coming from industry lobbyists for food chains, meat packers and importers. In fact, USDA first proposed a regulation requiring disclosure of where dangerous recalled food is being sold in February 2005. Nothing has happened since.

Tony Corbo of public advocacy group Food & Water Watch told me, “The main impediment has been the White House Office of Management and Budget which is responsible for clearing major regulation changes.

“The food industry has effectively lobbied OMB thus far to prevent the implementation of this rule.”

Trade associations representing both the supermarkets and the meatpackers have argued that the lists of retailers are proprietary information. The supermarket chains’ Food Marketing Institute has been especially active in its opposition to the proposed regulation arguing that the reputations of its members could be forever damaged if consumers knew that they sold contaminated product, Corbo, FWW’s legislative director, said.

If supermarket information is part of government recall announcements, consumers will make a faster association with recent purchases they made. This is important, he says, because government food safety “officials have publicly admitted that they are able to recover only a very small fraction of meat and poultry products that have been the subject of recall.”

He says the food safety agency has launched a “trial balloon” that said only announcements for Class I recalls — those that involve adulterated products in which there is a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause health problems or death — should contain retailer information.

“That is simply not acceptable,” he said, and cited the recent 143 million pound meat recall involving Hallmark/Westland in Chino, Calif. — the largest meat recall in U.S. history.

“It would have been exempted from this requirement since USDA classified it as a Class II recall.

“If the government announces a product recall, it is trying to remove the product from commerce as expeditiously as possible. There should be no differentiation in policy,” said Corbo.

March 27, 2008

Spreading the word of diacetyl danger

As awareness of the health hazard from exposure to lung-destroying diacetyl spreads, government and food service industry safety officials, as well as some consumers, worry over how to identify the presence of the controversial butter flavoring in the products with which they cook.

It is almost impossible to find “diacetyl” listed when you read the ingredients on the labels of oils, butters, margarines and cooking sprays. In almost all cases, the only indication that it may be present will be the mention of “natural and artificial flavorings.”

That’s all the FDA demands, because it considers diacetyl to be safe to use.


Testing for diacetyl. P-I photo

Worker health investigators from the government, unions and elsewhere are trying to determine whether diacetyl is in the thousands of cooking products used in hundreds of thousands of commercial kitchens. They face a difficult task. They tell me they often find themselves stymied when trying to determine what additives are in the products.

The mammoth, nationwide distributors will say they don’t know and point to the manufacturers, who sometimes can’t or won’t discuss the formulation.

In the end, those trying to evaluate the risks have to turn to complex, costly and time-consuming laboratory analysis to learn what hazards may be coming from the vapors rising from the heated grills and skillets.

The American Culinary Federation, the nation’s largest organization for professional chefs, is concerned that chefs and cooks not associated with professional groups or unions looking out for their safety may not be aware of the dangers from using diacetyl-containing products.


Chef Walter Bronowitz

“There are still tens of thousands of short order and line cooks who have yet to hear about this,” Walter Bronowitz, the organization’s national secretary and executive chef at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital and Medical Center told me today. “They must be made aware also. We all must help spread the word to those we aren’t normally in contact with.”

He also raised the issue of the importance and difficulty of knowing what’s in the products.

“Most of us chefs are removing butter flavored products from use in our kitchens as a result of what we now know about diacetyl, but we need action quickly so that we can also know what other products it’s being put into by manufacturers,” he said.

Bronowitz said the 20,000 member federation is sending information to its 260 state, regional and local chapters in the hope that the need for caution will be disseminated widely and rapidly.

Here is a link to ACF’s call for the FDA to change its designation that diacetyl is safe.

March 26, 2008

Healthier smokin’ and grilllin’?

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird — Andrew Schneider @ 08:38

It has been about four months since I told P-I readers more than they ever wanted to know about smoking a turkey for the holidays and I’m still getting email and calls from people who want to know why, how and what to grill or smoke.


Keeping a watchful eye on the bird. Photo by Andrew Schneider

I just got some information from the country’s top manufacturer of outdoor cooking gear that may answer some of those questions. Each year Weber commissions an independent survey firm to interview 1,000 owners of grills and smokers.

Some answers were expected: hot dogs are cooked slightly more often than hamburgers. Some answers were surprising: About a third of those questioned said they are grilling more than they were a year ago because they’re “trying to eat healthier,” according to the GrillWatch Survey. They said that they are grilling leaner meats, more vegetables (39 percent), more poultry (34 percent) and more fish (22 percent) than they did a year ago.

Six percent said they are grilling more meat substitutes such as veggie burgers and tofu and fruit.

  • More than half (57 percent) of all grill owners say they grill throughout the year. Seventy-one percent report they fire up their grill “at least once a week” and 47 percent say they fire it up “at least a few times per week.”
  • While 95 percent of survey respondents say they grill dinner “on a regular basis,” 37 percent say they now grill lunch on a regular basis, and 2 percent grill breakfast or brunch on a regular basis.

Gas grills are still preferred over charcoal as the grill type used most often (56 percent vs. 38 percent). The number of Americans who declare they use charcoal most often has steadily increased during the last three years (38 percent this year vs. last year’s 36 percent and 2005’s 32 percent).

March 23, 2008

How do you know where food comes from?

Filed under: FDA,Food labeling,Government & corporate wrong-doing — Andrew Schneider @ 13:24

FDA has warned consumers to watch out for salmonella in Honduran cantaloupe, but how can shoppers know where their lope came from if there is no label on it?

American shoppers are increasingly demanding to know the origin of their food. But some growers, importers and lobbyists continue to fight it. Now, the premier of Alberta says demands to label meat as coming from Canada is protectionism and a ploy by U.S. beef and pork producers to protect their market share and has nothing to do with “Mad Cow” disease.

Getting back to the tainted fruit for a moment, the FDA issued a recall Saturday for cantaloupe from Agropecuaria Montelibano, a Honduran grower and packer, believed responsible for an outbreak of 59 cases of salmonella in Washington, Oregon, 14 other states and Canada. No deaths have been reported; however, 14 people have been hospitalized.

Last year I reported on bananas and mango coming from Washington State and coffee beans from Canada and showed that many food items listing various U.S. and Canadian communities as their point of origin actually were grown in China, Thailand, Central and South America and other countries. And yes, there was an error in the story, which wrongly reported that peanuts don’t grow in Canada, but this gross oversight aside, labeling is an important issue.

Graham Thomson writes in The Edmonton Journal that Premier Ed Stelmach is growing increasingly irritated with a protectionist movement in the U.S. that is demanding a “country of origin” label on all foods sold in U.S. grocery stores.


Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach

Those behind the push, according to the newspaper, include the U.S. beef producers group called R-CALF, (Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America) which the Journal says, “has proved itself no friend of Canada’s by prolonging the mad cow crisis by fighting hoof and nail to keep Canadian beef out of the U.S. under the guise of food safety.”

“Under the veil of food safety, country of origin labeling came forward,” said Stelmach.

“It would appear they want a larger piece of the American market for themselves. They know that some Americans will buy products with “made in the USA” labels over something labeled foreign,” the paper reported.

March 20, 2008

Chefs urge diacetyl investigation

The nation’s largest organization for professional chefs today called for increased government investigations into the cause-and-effect relationship between the chemical butter flavoring diacetyl and the sometimes fatal lung disease that has destroyed the lungs of hundreds of workers in flavoring and popcorn plants.

The American Culinary Federation also urged the Food and Drug Administration to remove its “generally recognized as safe” designation from the chemical combination of diacetyl that is used to impart a butter flavoring to thousands of food products. This must be done, the federation said, “until a conclusive determination is made” on the danger of the food additive.

“Compelling evidence exists that exposure to and inhalation of diacetyl, especially in oils, butters, margarines and popcorn, does have a direct correlation to harmful health effects,” John Kinsella, president of the federation said in a statement released today. “It is imperative that the government investigate the dangers of diacetyl, as well as impose regulations, until conclusive evidence can be obtained as to the hazardous effects, extent of exposure and association with the fatal lung disease, bronchiolitis obliterans.”

In December, the Seattle P-I reported on the results of laboratory analysis it commissioned of almost two dozen cooking products and found that when heated in cooking simulations, diacetly was released into the air. The testing showed that the oils, sprays and butters used by professional cooks released levels of diacetyl that match what was found in some of the Midwest plants where popcorn makers were severely injured.

On Tuesday the P-I reported that the worker safety research arm of the Centers for Disease Control – the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health – was examining the diacetyl hazard to cooks in three New York institutional restaurants and that Washington State officials are doing the same at least two sites in Seattle.

“Investigations of diacetyl by OSHA and NIOSH concluded that diacetyl is toxic and does pose a hazardous health threat to workers where products containing the chemical are regularly prepared. This includes manufacturing plants, commercial kitchens and restaurants, ” said the organization, which represents 20,000 chefs throughout North America and has ties to the World Association of Chefs Societies, with more than eight million members globally.

In response to the commercial kitchen investigations, the Environmental Working Group yesterday told the P-I that the health impacts of diacetyl on workers has been known for 20 years.

“Diacetyl should be replaced due to these studies alone, instead of proving that individual exposure scenarios are harmful or safe,” said Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst for the public interest research group.

” It is pretty pathetic that we can’t ban an unnecessary chemical that is proven to destroy human lung tissues based on the existing evidence alone. added Lunder.

“Furthermore, the use of diacetyl as a preservative for real butter is very unsettling, since it indicates widespread exposure for the general population as well.”

In the December analysis, the newspaper found that artificial diacetyl is routinely added to pure unsalted butter.

Government investigators were requested to do the New York City and Seattle inspections by Unite Here, North America’s largest union for restaurant, hotel and institutional food workers. The food service operations are run by Aramark, but investigators and some cooks believe that sites selected by the union – such as the Seattle Convention Center and Key Arena – are not representative of the diacetyl exposure that cooks face in most restaurants. It’s far too limited, some cooks and investigators say, because the Seattle locations have only a limited menu, are open only sporadically and the cooks usually work in many oother places.

Cooks from the Hilton and Doubletree Hotels and the King County Jail discuss what diacetyl-containing products may be used in their kitchens with a representative from the Seattle Unite Here local. P-I Photo

Union officials tell the P-I that they may add some hotel restaurants tor “more representative kitchens” to the request for a Health Hazard Evaluation that it submitted to state occupational health experts.

Holiday fish rush eased

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Food Safety,Good food,Seafood — Andrew Schneider @ 09:26

Most Americans get their seafood at restaurants but, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, that changes between the Lenten season between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday when seafood sales for home consumption traditionally increase by 30 percent.

But the fish counter can be a confusing place for shoppers. I talked to fish mongers at Safeway, Metro Market and Fisherman’s Terminal and they agree that people are asking a lot more questions beyond “Is this fresh?”


Which seafood to buy? Photo by Andrew Schneider

The top queries included whether the possible closing of salmon fishing off California would be felt in the Northwest, and what about mercury contamination in swordfish and tuna, and of course, which seafood are environmentally-friendly choices. The answer to the first question is there is no cause to worry about getting wild salmon at markets in the Northwest . The managers of several stories told me that we get 90 percent of the wild salmon from waters between northern Oregon and Alaska and they anticipate no problems with supply.

There is now a simple way to get the answers and latest information on which seafood is safest and most plentiful, and get it while you’re shopping.

The Environmental Defense Fund and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program have long offered information to consumers on wallet cards and their Seafood Selector website. Now you can get the the latest guidance on your cell phone or other mobile device while deciding on what seafood to get at the market or restaurant.

Information on their “Seafood Selector To-Go” can be accessed here. The link will provide consumers with mobile information on more than 200 popular seafood choices.

March 19, 2008

EPA’s animal farm exemption

EPA’s scientists have found that hydrogen sulfide and ammonia from animal waste from huge factory livestock operations can be powerful pollutants with potentially serious health effects, such as acute respiratory irritation and damage to central nervous system. A Pew Commission report on these farms found “the toxic gas emissions can be harmful � and even fatal � to farm workers and surrounding communities.”

So with researchers saying this this issue requires greater, not lesser, scrutiny, why is EPA moving to keep the massive operations from having to report how they’re polluting the air and water?

Rep. John Dingell’s Committee on Energy and Commerce, and the heads of two of the subcommittees – Reps. Al Wynn and Hilda Solis – have written EPA Administrator Steve Johnson to explain what is behind what the members call “this questionable exemption” to the toxic emissions reporting law.

Dingell said: “It’s nothing more than a favor to big agribusiness at the expense of the public health and communities living near these facilities.”

Wynn said: “It defies logic to exempt animal feeding operations from the Superfund and Emergency Planning Community Right to Know Act reporting requirements when the toxic air emissions from these operations can cause severe health effects in people, even death.”

Solis cautioned that without reporting requirements, local governments risk being unable to protect the health and environment of their communities.

“Once again, the EPA has proposed actions which appear to harm � rather than help � the public interest,” said Solis.

March 18, 2008

Occupational Mortality Database

Filed under: Diacetyl,Environmental health issues,Food additives,Worker Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 05:55

Some of you questioned how to access the Mortality Database which I mentioned in today’s PI story on the first government investigations of dangerous vapor from butter flavoring released in kitchens of professional cooks.

We don’t know of any popcorn plants in Washington State that use the chemical butter flavoring diacetyl, but the state’s Occupational Mortality Database show that over the past 50 years, cooks, chefs and candy makers have died of respiratory disease at a rate significantly higher than expected. Candy makers and bakers often use the artificial butter flavoring which has been shown to destroy lungs and sometimes kills.

With a bit of patience, you can see what type of disease is most deadly to each of hundreds of occupations. (more…)

March 17, 2008

More information on diacetyl

Several of you have asked for a Spanish version of information on the hazards to cooks from exposure to the chemical butter flavoring diacetyl. Fortunately, you don’t have to rely on my Spanish language skills honed in Cuba when Castro was still considered a good guy. Washington State has come through again.

SHARP, the Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention program, has again beat the rest of the country and tonight posted the Spanish lanquage version of the diacetyl fact sheet.

If you want to see an example of a government agency doing all it can to address a public health and worker safety crisis, check out this letter that SHARP sent all the physicians in Washington State. In the letter, Dr. David Bonauto, associate medical director of the state Department of Labor & Industries, lists 17 of the scores of types of industries that use diacetyl beyond the much publicized microwave popcorn producers. Bonauto also tells the physicians to be vigilant for patients who work in other operations that use diacetyl-containing products.

Occupational medicine specialists at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health also caution examining physicians that care is needed when considering what disease workers exposed to flavoring agents might be suffering from. They point our that before arriving at a final diagnosis of bronchiolitis obliterans, doctors of affected workers initially thought that the symptoms might be due to asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, pneumonia, or smoking.

NIOSH information can be found on its Web site.

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