andrew schneider investigates

April 30, 2008

A guide to the safety of food additives

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Food labeling,Food Safety,Risks to children — Andrew Schneider @ 13:00

Every week I get a couple of dozen e-mails or phone calls asking me which food additives are safe and which aren’t. When I suggest that the readers check out the Food and Drug Administration’s Web site or Goggle or Yahoo, what I all too often wind up with are frustrated and unhappy readers.

The problem is that for every article or posting offered on the internet that says something is unsafe and should be avoided, there is another that can be easily found that says the identical substance could be consumed in large quantities. Now I know this will amaze you, but over the years I have found that the positive reviews are sometimes written by doctors (MDs or PhDs) who work for the company making or selling the additive. Articles waving consumers off have often been written by scientists with competing financial interests.

Where can a consumer turn who wants the latest “unbiased” information on the safety of what’s added to our food?

One place is the Center for Science in the Public Interest. This public advocate for nutrition and food safety has been around for 30-plus years and is equally loved and disdained by all sides, so they’re probably doing something really well.

The organization has just released its latest revision on which food additives are safe and which aren’t. It’s called “Chemical Cuisine,” the Classic A-to-Z Guide

The guide may help you know what you should do if a waiter offered you some butylated hydroxytoluene with your food. You’d probably decline. Yet that chemical is one of scores of hard-to-pronounce additives that routinely show up in the fine print on packaged foods’ ingredients lists.

Is BHT safe? CSPI says food manufacturers use it to keep oils from going rancid, but animal studies differ on whether in promotes or prevents cancer.

“Just because an additive is artificial doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unsafe,” said CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson, who began researching food additives in 1971. “That said, the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t done nearly enough to police the preservatives, dyes, emulsifiers, stabilizers, thickeners, sweeteners and other chemicals many of us eat every day.”

Chemical Cuisine ranks additives as “safe,” “cut back,” “caution,” “certain people should avoid,” and “everyone should avoid.” Some additives that fall in the latter category include:

� Acesulfame potassium, Aspartame, Saccharin. Those artificial sweeteners are either unsafe or poorly tested. The only artificial sweetener to get a “safe” grade is sucralose (Splenda).

� Partially hydrogenated oil. This is one artificial food ingredient that CSPI has asked the FDA to get out of the food supply, since its trans fat component is a potent cause of heart disease and possibly other health problems. Yet Burger King and many other restaurants still deep fry with it; many manufacturers of frozen foods par fry with it; and some manufacturers, restaurant chains, and bakeries still use it in pie crusts, pastries, and other foods.

� Potassium bromate. This chemical strengthens dough, and most of it breaks down harmlessly. But bromate itself does cause cancer in animals, and isn’t worth the small risk it poses to humans. Many bakers have stopped using bromated flour.

Jacobson says that while it’s important to pay attention to the presence of many of these food additives, the presence of salt and sugar must also be weighed.

“Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure are such problems in this country in part because Americans are eating way much more sugar and salt than our bodies can handle,” said Jacobson. “They’re both perfectly ‘natural’ ingredients but everyone should cut back.”


Taxpayer help to farmers

Farming has to be one of the most difficult, unpredictable and sometimes frustrating professions there is, especially for the small mom and pop growers.

But the Environmental Working Group reports that 2007 was a banner year for farmers of grain, soybeans and cotton, as high prices for their crops earned them record net income, even after they paid skyrocketing costs for fuel, fertilizer and seed.

EWG President Ken Cook

And for some, the financial picture gets even better. Under formulas set by Congress, taxpayers topped off the record farm earnings with another $5 billion in “direct payment” crop subsidies, says EWG President Ken Cook.

“Over 60 percent of the subsidy was pocketed by just 10 percent of the recipients-the largest and generally wealthiest subsidized farming operations in the country, said the head of the public interest research group.

More than 400 Washington State farms got a piece of the public pie according to the EWG’s database of recipients. Here a link that will tell you who got what in our state.

For a breakdown of payouts in the rest of the country check out this link.

Massive farms harm health, environment

There have long been debates over whether massive factory farms are better for the consumer and livestock being raised for market than the traditional family operation. Well, now a 2 1/2 -year analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health document how and why industrial-scale farm animal production poses unacceptable risks.

The 124-page report, “Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America” shows that while the mammoth, industrial farming operations have, in some cases, lowered food costs, they harm human health and the environment, treat animals inhumanely and destabilize the already beleaguered economy of rural America.

A cattle feed lot Photo by Andrew Schneider

Pew investigators have determined that the negative effects of the corporate producers of milk, eggs and meat “are too great and the scientific evidence is too strong to ignore.”

“Significant changes must be implemented and must start now,” the commissioners said, and here are some of the recommendations the organization offered:

1. Ban the non-therapeutic use of antimicrobials in food animal production to reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance to medically important antibiotics and other microbials.

2. Implement a disease monitoring program for food animals to allow 48-hour trace-back of those animals through aspects of their production.

3. Treat these farms as the industrial operation they are and implement a new system to deal with farm waste to protect Americans from the adverse environmental and human health hazards of improperly handled IFAP waste.

4. Phase out the most intensive and inhumane production practices within a decade to reduce the risk to public health and improve animal well-being

5. Increase funding for, expand and reform, animal agriculture research.

Here is a link to Pew and the report.

April 28, 2008

Subsistence food helps cancer fighting.

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Random observations,Sustainable food — Andrew Schneider @ 09:16

For those fighting cancer, a healthy diet is critical.

For Alaska Natives fighting cancer, a healthy diet means foods hunted and gathered from land and sea, foods seasoned by a sense of place and community, foods like muktuk and seagull egg pie that the non-Native medical establishment doesn’t understand and, therefore, has a hard time endorsing.

Anchorage Daily News Reporter Debra McKinney tells of a new guide which gives dietary credibility to what subsistence eaters have known all along: Wild foods are not only rich in nutrients, but rich in story, culture and comfort, all part of the health and healing package.

The book, “Traditional Food Guide for Alaska Native Cancer Survivors,” is of vital importance, the reporter writes, because proportionally, Alaska Natives die of cancer way more than the white population does.

With 400 new cases diagnosed each year, it’s the leading cause of death among Natives in Alaska, as it is for all Alaskans. Research indicates that a shift of diet, from traditional subsistence foods toward processed, convenient ones, may play a role, and not just in higher rates of cancer, but diabetes and obesity.

The 142-page guide, primarily funded by a grant from the Lance Armstrong Foundation, provides protein analysis for everything from musk ox to muskrat. It lists the vitamin A and C content of wild celery, fiddlehead ferns, fireweed and other subsistence plants. Calories, cholesterol and carbohydrates, too.

It also explains vital questions like: what’s a serving of moose? Check out her story at the link above.

April 21, 2008

New techniques to test fish for mercury

Fish lovers in the Pacific Northwest who have curtailed their consumption of seafood because of concerns over mercury contamination may now get help from science in loading their shopping cart. New technology is permitting some fish mongers to certify that their seafood have low levels of the toxic agent that is known to harm developing nervous system of the unborn and young children.

“Now we can tell markets with scientific confidence that what they’re buying from the processors and selling at their fish counters have been certified to contain low levels of mercury,” Michael Wittenberg, the CEO of Micro Analytical Systems Inc. told me.

The technology behind Wittenberg’s “Safe Harbor Foods” certification centers on the collection of a tiny sample of flesh from the fish being evaluated using a hollow biopsy needle. The sample of fish is then inserted into a sampling console attached to a computer.

“In a minute or less, the analysis is completed, the results printed out and the fish can be tagged certifying that it meets or exceeds government standards,” Wittenberg explained to me.
It’s this “Safe Harbor Certified Seafood” certification that Haggen, Inc. has introduced at its 33 TOP Food, Haggen and Larry’s supermarkets in Washington and Oregon.

“It was the right thing to do for our customers,” Russ Casteel, seafood buyer for the chain, explained to me today.

“For the last three years we have seen increasing concern among shoppers over mercury in seafood,” “Now, with this Safe Harbor certification, they will know that the seafood they’re getting from us has been tested to ensure that the mercury it contains is at or below government standards for safety.”

The testing is done at Haggen’s two seafood suppliers. All shipments from Alaska of salmon, cod, halibut, rockfish and Dover sole are tested in Seattle. Samples from each shipment of King crab, scallops and lobster tails imported through Los Angeles are tested at that location before shipped to the chain, Casteel said.

“Every swordfish, tuna or other species known to accumulate higher levels of mercury are tested individually,” he said. “Anything that exceeds government levels will be refused by our buyers.”

The cost of the testing, which Casteel said is minimal, is passed on to the consumer.
The system has been used for two to three years in groceries through California and Wittenberg says they are close to adding new capability that will detect and measure other dangerous heavy metals in seafood.

While mercury is naturally occurring, the largest source is clearly industrial pollution. It falls from the air and accumulates in streams and oceans where its contact with water converts it to methylmercury. The FDA says all fish and shellfish absorb some methylmercury as they feed so it builds up in them. In some species, like shark, swordfish, King Mackerel and tuna the levels can be alarmingly higher than most others.

FDA and other health advisory organizations have set standards for mercury levels but the consumer and the seller didn’t know what was in the seafood they were purchasing.

For more information on mercury in fish and Safe Harbor certification here are the links to FDA, EPA, and MASI.

House committee has plan to improve FDA

Filed under: FDA,Food labeling,Public health legislation — Andrew Schneider @ 10:08

After holding a dozen investigatory hearings into the actions, or, more accurately, the lack of action, by the Food and Drug Administration, congressional committees have laid out the skeleton of major changes it wants the agency to institute to insure the safety of imported food, drugs and medical devices.

“By strengthening protections against tainted imports and boosting FDA resources, this bill will help assure Americans that the food on their tables and the medicine in their cabinets is safe,” said Rep. John Dingell, chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce.

“Our legislation will provide the resources and regulations necessary to protect American families from the unsafe food and drugs pouring into this country from China and elsewhere.” said Rep. Bart Stupak, who heads the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations

The committee posted a draft of the Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act of 2008 for discussion and intends to hold legislative hearings on the draft over the next few weeks and to markup legislation soon after.

There are scores of issues that the “Discussion Draft” raised to be addressed. Those from the food side of the FDA triangle of concerns include:

The creation of an accurate registry of all food facilities serving American consumers and require that all register with FDA each year.

The prevention of food safety problems before they occur by requiring foreign and domestic food facilities to have safety plans in place to identify and mitigate hazards. These plans would be reviewed by FDA during mandatory inspections every four years.

The requirement that foreign facilities not certified would be required to ship products only through ports of entry with Federal testing laboratories.

A requirement that country-of-origin labeling disclose where the final processing of the food product occurred.

The providing of new authority to the FDA to issue mandatory recalls of tainted foods and strengthen fines imposed on food facilities that fail to comply with safety requirements.

Require meat, poultry, and seafood products to which carbon monoxide has been added to be labeled with a consumer notice that the freshness of the product should not be judged by color.

And, develop a method so the public can understand and observe the process by which FDA allows an additive to be designated as “generally recognized as safe” and thus exempt from the extensive testing required for all food products.

April 16, 2008

Is EPA allowed to do its job?

Filed under: Environmental health issues,EPA,Government & corporate wrong-doing — Andrew Schneider @ 09:48

When Steve Johnson was tapped to head the EPA, many of my friends in the agency said they were proud that one of their own – a real environmental scientist – was pulled from their ranks to be the boss. But the glow of Johnson’s appointment quickly waned in the messy political realities of being the country’s environmental protector. Many of the same scientists and investigators told me that they were worried that Johnson was anointed to the position because he would be even more susceptible to the ever-present pressure from the White House and industry lobbyists.

Even more susceptiible then George Bush’s two previous administrators, Christine Todd Whitman and Mike Leavitt?

Hell yes, says a cover story in the National Journal. Reporter Margaret Kriz wrote that “Johnson’s EPA is regularly pushed around by politically powerful advisers at the White House and in other departments. And that congressional Democrats aren’t making the administrator’s life any easier.

“There’s a sense that the agency has not stood up for itself and has been run over by other interests in the executive branch — and that it’s happened under Steve Johnson’s stewardship,” Richard Lazarus, an environmental law professor at Georgetown, told Kriz.

The NJ reported that EPA is failing to live up to its name these days. At a time when the nation’s top environmental regulators face increasingly complex pollution problems, President Bush is pushing for dramatic cuts in EPA’s budget, his administration’s strained, pro-industry interpretations of environmental laws have repeatedly been laughed out of court, and the White House is widely perceived to be running roughshod over agency scientists and lawyers.

April 15, 2008

Food safety cannot be ignored

Filed under: FDA,Food Safety,Public health legislation — Andrew Schneider @ 13:59

To those who sent such “caring” emails questioning whether or not I had been arrested, kidnapped or bumped off by W.R. Grace, the makers of butter flavoring or OSHA and therefore couldn’t post to the blog for a few of days, the answer is, no such luck.

I was at a food safety conference at the Seattle University Law School listening to some of the sharpest authorities in the very fast-changing world of keeping people from being poisoned by what they eat, drink and touch. The speakers came from as far away as Geneva, Australia and Costco’s headquarters in Kirkland.

I learned a lot and was frightened by even more, especially by how much I didn’t know.

The villains of the two-day drama were E coli 0157, Salmonella, Listeria and other malicious pathogens in food or water. They sicken at least 76 million people a year and kill another 5,000 or more in the United States. However, some of the lecturers said that is only a fraction of the real number of incidents are reported.

Drs. Richard Raymond and David Goldman, the No. 1 and 2 bosses of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, shared the realities and complexities of being the frontline protectors of all meats, poultry and eggs heading for the market.

Raymond explained that he opposed mandatory food recall authority because the accompanying legal niceties would slow his agency’s ability to quickly respond to discovery of dangerous food.

Dr, David Goldman

Goldman, who also runs FSIS’s four analytical laboratories, said some of the blame for food illnesses is due consumers who don’t read or misread labels. For example, those consumers who eat undercooked meat because they micro-waved chicken products when the label clearly stated “cook in conventional oven only.”

William Keene, a senior epidemiologist from Oregon’s Public Health Service, surprised some in attendance when he said that the majority of foodborne outbreak investigations are inconclusive, meaning investigators are not able to identify the specific source of the disease.

“It’s like a crime was committed and the criminal that got away,” Keene explained to me.

Even though there is an extensive reporting system set up in most states, the reported number of cases is typically just a small fraction of the people who are sickened, Keene said. This, he said, is due to many reasons, including people just “toughing out” the illness to avoid costly medical bills and physicians not ordering specific diagnostic tests.

He also told me that almost all reptiles, especially pet iguana, carry salmonella and are the cause of many emergency room visits.

If there was any doubt about the importance of what the speakers and all public health workers do, it was pretty much gutted when Barbara Kowaleyk spoke of how her 2 �-year-old son Kevin had died from exposure to E coli.


April 8, 2008

Feds investigate soaring E. coli cases

Filed under: FDA,Food labeling,Food Safety,Government & corporate wrong-doing — Andrew Schneider @ 23:15

Federal, corporate and legal experts in food safety are meeting today in Washington, D.C., to try to understand what’s behind the soaring number of recalls and illnesses related to beef and other meat tainted with E. coli O157:H7.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service says the last significant positive changes in the reduction of food-borne illness attributed to E. coli occurred early in this decade.

“We have since hit a plateau. It is time for another series of bold, strong moves based on knowledge and science to produce further significant reductions in illnesses attributed to the products we regulate,” said Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Richard Raymond. “We aim to prevent and not just respond to illnesses. . .”

Dr. Richard Raymond

Raymond, who will be one of dozens of food safety experts speaking at a conference at the Seattle University Law School later this week, said his agency will continue working closely with the meat industry, consumers and the public health community “to ensure food safety.”

Much of the focus of today’s FSIS hearing will be on the safety of “primal cuts” of meat, the whole carcasses, side and other large cuts that manufacturers sell for butchering and packaging for retail consumption.

Seattle lawyer and food safety expert William Marler was asked to testify before the panel and he agreed that the downturn in illnesses and recalls from 1994 to 2004 was too good to be true.

The last half of 2007 showed a substantial increase in the volume of recalls and illnesses, greater than in any year since 2000, Marler told the panel and reminded them that the amount of ground beef recalled in all of 2006 was 156,235 pounds in only eight recalls. In 2007, over 30 million pounds of meat was recalled in 21 recalls, said Marler, who has represented hundred of people injured or kill by tainted food products.

The theories on the cause of the serious increase abound, he said, and offered a few examples.

Complacency: After five years of progress with the E. coli problem, one wonders if meat processors have consciously or unconsciously slacked off, relaxing their testing procedures so that they are less likely to detect tainted meat.

Better Reporting: When you deal with statistics, there is always some risk that a change in data collection will create false impressions. Perhaps more doctors are more likely to recognize the symptoms of E. coli poisoning, thereby increasing the chances that an outbreak will be detected, and leading to a recall.

Global Warming: Too dry? Too wet? One theory has it that drought through much of the Southeast and Southwest has led to more fecal dust wafting in the breezes through beef-slaughtering plants, creating new avenues for beef to become tainted. Too wet? This theory focuses on excessive rainfall in other regions, which leads to muddy pens that serve as an ideal vehicle for E. coli at meat-processing plants.

Other explanations are just as unusual and include illegal immigration and high oil prices. You might want to check out this link to a copy of the testimony Marler presented at the hearing.

Climate change could see pubs run dry

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Sustainable food — Andrew Schneider @ 12:10

Climate change could cause a drop in beer production within 25 years, warns Dr. Jim Salinger of New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.

In a speech given this morning, Salinger said the weather can cause a decline of malting barley production in parts of New Zealand. Further, The New Zealand Herald reported, “that Australia was likely to be hit harder because the dry areas in that country would become drier and water shortages were only going to get worse.

“It will mean either there will be pubs without beer or the cost of beer will go up,” Salinger said, according to the Herald. “It will provide a lot of challenges for the brewing industry,” the paper quoted Salinger as saying.

He said breweries could be forced to look at new varieties of malt as a direct result of climate change.

Are America’s beer drinkers safe?

One of my colleagues says that some of Seattle’s micro-brewers are already having a problem getting the quality grain they use at a good price. I can’t confirm tihs because I don’t drink beer. However, I do have an urgent call into The Scotch Board in Scotland to see how my favorite single malt is holding up.

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