andrew schneider investigates

May 30, 2008

Good food? Grow it or buy it locally

Filed under: Food labeling,Food Safety,Good food,Sustainable food — Andrew Schneider @ 17:01

I got an e-mail this morning from Di Rayburn in Berkshire, England, where she says that there is now a big push toward healthy eating, buying locally grown food and starting your own garden, all, she says, to cut down its carbon footprint.

This been an increase in applying for “allotments,” which are small plots of ground rented cheaply from local town councils where townsfolk can grow their own veggies like the Brits and Yanks both did with their victory gardens during “the big war.”

These small garden plots lost popularity after the war, Di says, “but now, with a (UK) health service that believes in preventative measures before serious health problems can kick in, there is a push for healthy eating, and allotments are experiencing a comeback.


Locally grown?

“Freezing, pickling or bottling the excess, means you save a lot of money through the year and when you pick your own and bring it home to cook, you know it’s chock full of vitamins and minerals due to its freshness” said the foodie from across the Atlantic.

“The ‘old’ ways are worth taking a look at occasionally,” said Mrs. Rayburn.

If you have no time, space or interest in growing your own, there are at least 4,000 farmers’ markets now operating across the country.

Greeenlightmagazine.com says two of the best farmers markets in the country are in the Pacific Northwest. Here’s their descriptions:

Portland Farmers Market, Oregon – Troll the stalls for Dungeness crab, farmed abalone, wild mushrooms, and organic cranberries, and the acclaimed breads and pastry from Pearl Bakery, made with sustainably grown ingredients, including Pacific Northwest wheat and dairy. Afterward, drop the kids off for a cooking class, while you stop by the “Taste the Place” booth to learn about “underappreciated produce” and what to do with it.

Seattle “U-District” Market – Seattle’s largest neighborhood market is “farmers only,” meaning it’s limited to food products. It hosts more than 50 regional growers who gather to sell everything from free-range eggs and hard cider, to hazelnuts, wild huckleberries and mushrooms, to grass-fed goat meat.

There is wide agreement that if you shop at a market where the food is actually grown by local farmers and not just unpacked by them, the quality is premium, but so are the prices.

Well, maybe not any more.

According to the Market Free News, earlier this year economic students at Seattle University tallied prices over a two-week period at two groceries � Whole Foods and QVC � and at the farmers market in Seattle’s University District. To the surprise of many, the prices for the locally produced produces from the farmers cost less than at the two chain stories. For example, a pound of fruits and veggies at the farmers market was $2.37, at Whole Foods $2.59 and at QVC, $2.97.

But just keep your eyes open for the rare shifty farmer from Wenatchee unpacking boxes that say “Grown in Guatemala.”

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May 29, 2008

How much of your food is GMO?

Back a couple of months, a couple of you asked how you could determine whether or not your food contained genetically modified organisms. It took a while, but I found a bit of information that might help you better understand this bomb-filled arena, or just add to your confusion.

Here’s one point that’s indisputable. It is difficult for consumers to know whether the food they’re buying was genetically modified, especially in this country. Most of the industrialized countries demand that GMO products be labeled as such. But not the U.S.

The Pew Research Foundation reported that more than 90 percent of American shoppers want food labeled as to its contents, including GMO. Unless I missed it, there was nothing in the farm bill that finally passed last week that will give us a clue to the presence of GM ingredients.


GMO By Rediscover Biology

Monsanto, which has a chokehold on the world’s use of genetically modified seeds, is now using its extensive network of lawyers and lobbyists to pressure state agriculture agencies not to allow milk producers to label dairy products as not coming from cows fed with GM food or bovine growth hormone.

To learn more about Monsanto, check out this link to Don Barlett and Jim Steele’s very well done and balanced investigative report in this month’s Vanity Fair.

As with almost everything controversial, all the opinions on GMO have to be weighed by considering the source of the information. The Institute for Responsible Technology makes no pretense about its concern over the danger of using genetically modified substances in our food.

The institute, founded in 2003 by Jeffery Smith, the author of “Seeds of Deception,” says many consumers in the U.S. mistakenly believe that the FDA approves GM foods through rigorous, in-depth, long-term studies. In reality, the agency has absolutely no safety testing requirements.

Smith says it’s easy to understand the FDA’s industry-friendly policy on regulation of GMOs when you see the revolving door between agency regulators and the companies they regulate.

The FDA has claimed it was not aware of any information showing that GM crops were different “in any meaningful or uniform way” from non-GMO crops and therefore didn’t require testing. But Smith says that 44,000 internal FDA documents made public by a lawsuit show that this was not true.

But getting back to the original question of how to identify GMO-tainted food, the institute has released a four-page guide on what to watch out for, including a lengthy list of food items containing GM ingredients.

The guide and other GMO information can be found at the institute’s Web site at this link.

As expected, Monsanto says its processes are safe and beneficial and it “helps farmers grow food more efficiently and in a more sustainable manner. We do this through science and the development of agricultural technology. Our products have changed the way food is grown, to the benefit of both farmers and consumers,” its Web site states.

For the rest of the story, or at least Monsanto’s side of the GMO issue, this link will take you to a long list of stories that the worldwide chemical company has presented on its position.

Good luck sorting through all of this.

Wouldn’t shopping be an easier and possibly safer chore if all food were properly labeled?

May 28, 2008

State auditors watch to keep food safe

Filed under: Food Safety,Sustainable food — Andrew Schneider @ 17:18

Did you know Washington state farmers and food processors produce more than different 300 crops and packaged or processed foods? They range from the obvious like apples, cherries and potatoes to the lesser known lentils and organic tofu. All are locally grown, says the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

The state Ag inspectors are doing their best to see that the crops are free of E. coli, Listeria, salmonella and other food-borne illnesses that sickened so many. The massive media coverage on food recalls often damage or destroy the businesses of many mom and pop farmers, even some whose crops were not contaminated but were swept up in the public angst.

Farmers who raise fresh fruit and vegetable and those who distribute the products are seeking third-party verification that safe farm practices are being used to reduce the risk of microbial contamination of fresh produce.

The state inspectors are following audit guidelines that USDA has developed to ensure both Good Agricultural Practices, which cover the growing process of fresh fruits and vegetables in the field, and Good Handling Practices, which are targeted at the procedures used at produce warehouses and packing plants.

While the audits are voluntary, an increasing number of national wholesalers and retailers are requiring the duel certification from the growers and processors from whom they acquire their foods, as does feds for the nation’s school lunch program.

“We want the buyers of Washington fruits and vegetables to know that they are getting the highest quality produce on the market,” says Jim Quigley of the state Ag department’s Fruit and Vegetable Inspection Program.

He says by reducing the risk of microbial contamination, these audits can help guard against a major product recall that can impact a business for years.

The state conducted 97 GAP audits in 2007, up from 16 audits the year before. And this year, demand is expected to exceed last year’s requests.

The state auditors examine a wide range of procedures along the food supply chain that can prevent the spread of bacterial illnesses, including:

* Field irrigation water tested for the presence of microbial
organisms;

* Measures to prevent livestock waste from contaminating crops and
water;

* Ability to trace back produce to a particular field and date of
harvest;

* Covered, clean trucks to haul all produce;

* Potable water used for food processing and hand washing;

* Proper storage and refrigeration of harvested produce;

* Documented pest control programs in warehouses; and

* Proper sanitation training for farm workers and packing house
employees.

May 27, 2008

Can we afford to eat organic food?

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Good food,Sustainable food — Andrew Schneider @ 15:45

Usually, when enough readers call with similar questions I try to grovel around and see if I can find an appropriate answer. Over the past few weeks several of you have called or e-mailed me wanting to know how you can continue to put healthy food on the table with grocery prices soaring.

The answer to that question popped up today in an article posted by Dr. Mary Pickett, an associate professor of medicine at Oregon Health & Science University where she is a primary care doctor for adults.


The internal medicine specialist reported that the federal government says April’s food prices were 14 percent higher for bread, 13.5 percent higher for milk, and 5 percent higher for food overall compared with last year’s prices, and last month’s food cost increase was the largest in the past 18 years.

The good doctor also tries to address the question of whether it’s important to buy organic food, which she says “can steeply increase the price you pay for fruits, vegetables, milk and grains.”

Her answer: It is hard to say for sure whether organics are worth the extra cost.
The most important difference between organic and non-organic foods is the presence of pesticides. Large exposures to pesticides are known to be dangerous, since pesticides can be toxic to nerves. But small exposures (like the small exposure you can get from non-organic foods) don’t cause obvious harms, she says.

She talks about Dr. Alex Lu’s study which I reported on Jan. 30, that showed that pre-school children who eat an organic foods diet have less organophosphate pesticide measured in their urine, compared with other children.

But she rightly concludes that “there is no good study that can prove–one way or the other–whether lifelong trace exposure to pesticides can cause human harm.”

She does caution that shoppers should not buy organic foods if they need to cut down on the quantity of fruits and vegetables that you buy in order to afford them. Washing, peeling, freezing and cooking fruits and vegetables eliminate a portion of the pesticides that contaminate them, so these are additional good strategies.

A valuable tip from Pickett is that if you choose to spend extra on organic foods, buy the organic versions of the fruits and vegetables in the “dirty dozen”–these are the foods that have the most pesticide residue: peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, grapes (imported), spinach, lettuce and potatoes.

Check out this link to her work for suggestions on what to do with dairy products, meat, juices and other shopping bag items.

May 20, 2008

health hazards of nanotechnology

Filed under: Environmental health issues,EPA,Nanotechnology,Public health legislation — Andrew Schneider @ 13:55

Two studies published in the past month have shown what many corporate-backed scientists said would never happen, but what most public health authorities have dreaded: the almost invisible world of nanotechnology can cause asbestos-like disease.


Andrew Maynard holding multi-walled carbon nanotubes

Today’s study, published in Nature Nanotechnolog, suggests some forms of carbon nanotubes � the very heart of most NT research – could be as harmful as asbestos if inhaled in sufficient quantities, says Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies and a co-author of the paper.

Researchers, led by Professor Kenneth Donaldson at the University of Edinburgh, examined the potential for long and short carbon nanotubes, long and short asbestos fibers, and carbon black to cause pathological responses known to be precursors of mesothelioma, Maynard explained.

Material was injected into the abdominal cavity of mice — a sensitive predictor of long fiber response in the lung lining.

“The results were clear,” says Donaldson. “Long, thin carbon nanotubes showed the same effects as long, thin asbestos fibers.”

Asbestos fibers can penetrate so deeply into the lungs that lungs’ built-in clearance mechanisms for getting rid of particles is thwarted.

“This study . . .looks at a specific nanoscale material expected to have widespread commercial applications and asks specific questions about a specific health hazard,” said Maynard.

The Japanese study, published last month, showed a similar link to mesothelioma.

Public health advocates are increasing their efforts to get the government to be more responsive to the potential hazards accompanying nanotechnology. On May 2, I posted a report in a coalition of consumer, health, and environmental groups demanding that the EPA use its pesticide regulation authority to stop the sale of numerous consumer products now using nano-sized versions of silver, called nano-silver.

“This is a wakeup call for nanotechnology in general and carbon nanotubes in particular,” says Maynard. “As a society, we cannot afford not to exploit this incredible material, but neither can we afford to get it wrong–as we did with asbestos.”

For more information on nanotechnology, I again point you to the blog of Dr. Jennifer Sass, who has been studying the health effects of NT for years.

May 19, 2008

Scientists urge EPA to ban endosulfan

The EU and 20 other countries have banned the use of the pesticide endosulfan, but the U.S. continues to permits its application on crops even though it is known to harm the hormone system, and low levels of exposure in the womb have been linked to male reproductive harm, other birth defects and possibly autism.

Today, more than 55 international scientists, medical doctors, nurses, other health professionals and Tribal governments and Indigenous groups in the Arctic sent a letter to the EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson urging him to phase out endosulfan.

Johnson is considered to be a man who never met a pesticide that he didn’t like by some of the scientists who worked with him before the White House made him the EPA boss. That allegation aside, public concern against endosulfan is well known in the agency. Petitions with more than 13,000 signatures urging the withdrawal of endosulfan’s registration were submitted earlier this year.

That registration is now under review by EPA, with the agency’s own analysis showing that farmers and workers applying endosulfan are exposed to unacceptably high levels of the pesticide, said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“It is time to take this dangerous and antiquated pesticide off the market,” says Sass. “The scientific evidence clearly shows that the continued use of this chemical puts the health of exposed farm workers, communities and the environment at risk.”

Dr. Sass’ blog has more information and links to the letters sent to the EPA.

May 16, 2008

Smoked seafod recalled

Filed under: FDA,Food Safety,Seafood — Andrew Schneider @ 11:23

If you’ve got dried smoked catfish or other smoked seafood from Hope Seafood Supply in your pantry or refrigerator, throw it out, says the Food and Drug Administration.

The food safety agency ordered the Pasadena, Texas, plant shut down and demanded an immediate recall of all seafood products manufactured at the facility since 2007.

The company, which distributes its catfish steaks and other seafood items nationwide, failed to develop and implement an adequate Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point for its fishery products, FDA said.

FDA’s regulations require that all seafood processors implement plans that identify all food safety hazards that are likely to occur for each kind of seafood product that they process, and establish measures to control those hazards.

Without adequate controls, FDA said, the company’s seafood products could harbor pathogenic bacteria such as staphylococcus aureus and listeria monocytogenes. These kinds of pathogens can cause serious illnesses in people who eat them.

“We simply will not allow a company to put the public’s health at risk by not implementing adequate procedures and plans to produce safe food,” said Margaret Glavin, associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. “The FDA will take action against companies and against their executives who violate the law and endanger public health.”

Consumers who have been eating these products and have experienced adverse reactions should consult their health care professional.
For more information, see the FDA news release. Also, consumers can call the FDA’s toll-free Food Safety Hotline at 1-888-SAFEFOOD.

May 15, 2008

Govt coverup in fertilizer research?

Sewage sludge is never a pretty picture and the on-again, off-again debate between big business and food safety scientists over what happens when this waste is used as fertilizers for vegetables and animal feed is even uglier.

According to some toxicologists for the government and public interest groups, sludge has been repeatedly linked to health problems in humans and livestock.


Some scientists are concerned over the safety of food crops and livestock in contact with the sewage sludge..

To get a snapshot of the latest sparring between agribusiness, academia and federal regulators check out this link to a detailed story by Jeff Tollefson of Nature.com.

Tollefson tells the tale of David Lewis, a former Environmental Protection Agency scientist, who is suing agency officials and researchers at the University of Georgia in Athens. Lewis, a microbiologist, alleges researchers at the university manufactured and published false data to support the use of potentially harmful sewage sludge as fertilizers.

The False Claims Act lawsuit brought by microbiologist Lewis, who says he was forced out of the agency, alleges that EPA officials and university researchers “fraudulently orchestrated a grant and then fabricated data to ensure that the EPA’s ‘biosolids’ program would come out smelling pretty,” the reporter wrote.

If the charges stick, the scientists and EPA officials could be held personally liable and may be forced to pay back the original grant as well as some $4.6 million in subsequent grants, plus penalties, wrote Tollefson.

EPA says it had investigated these cases and found “no substantiation” to the allegations.

Chicagoans can again eat goose liver

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Good food — Andrew Schneider @ 09:42

Just a short note to give those of you who really love or hate goose liver something to get excited over.

The comedic Chicago City Council yesterday decided it was wrong two-years ago when it told the chefs of the culinary Mecca of the Midwest that they could no longer serve foie gras.

According to Chicago Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman, Mayor Richard M. Daley said the ban made Chicago an international laughingstock. The mayor argued that the animal cruelty issue has been debated ad nauseam, that “everybody knew” about the repeal and it was high-time to reverse a foie gras ban that damaged the city’s reputation in international dining circles.

Daley noted that restaurants found ways to get around the ban, Spielman reported.

“You can buy it in retail. You can bring it with you. They can’t sell it to you, [but] they can put it on your salad and increase [the cost of] your salad by $20. They can put it on a piece of toast and charge you $10. Does that make sense? This is what government should be doing�? ” the mayor asked.

Foie gras, French for “fatty liver,” is produced by force-feeding geese and ducks — by jamming a steel pipe down a bird’s esophagus three times a day for a month — to create livers 10 times their normal size.

For those of you who want a refresher on the wacky world of Chicago politics, check out Fran’s story.

May 13, 2008

GAO urges caution on ocean fish farms

Filed under: Public health legislation,Salmon,Seafood,Sustainable food — Andrew Schneider @ 15:51

Let’s talk about fish. Or more specifically, aquaculture, which is the farming of fish and shellfish.


EPA Aquatic Biologist Dave Terpening at one of Idaho’s many fish farms. PI Photo

There are fish farms all across the country. Small mom and pop operations raising catfish in backyard ponds and streams can be found in at least 19 states. Idaho is home to about 60 seafood operations including an alligator breeder and the nation’s largest rainbow and golden trout farms. According to federal investigators, the salmon aquaculture industry in the United States is concentrated in Maine and Washington, with at least eight Atlantic salmon farms floating in Puget Sound alone. Just a bit north, there are another 120 salmon ranches along the inlets, bays and straits of British Columbia.


Of course an alligator is seafood. Ask them in Idaho. PI Photo

As wild salmon grow more scarce due to environmental disruption and diminished water flow on the fish’s traditional spawning rivers, the growth of aquaculture has increased. Enormously in some areas. But some breeders and the White House say the fish pens in coastal waters are not enough to produce the salmon and other finfish needed to supply the market.

The big business “farmers” want permission to build sprawling complexes of floating pens, nets and cages in deep water miles offshore. This is the United States’ Exclusive Economic Zone, which covers three to 200 nautical miles from shore. Thus, opening shop for anything in this hunk of ocean becomes a matter of federal jurisdiction, not state.

As it happens, there are few if any laws on the books to regulate this new concept in fish farming.

In a surprising example of the government actually getting ahead of a problem, the White House last year pushed for the creation of the National Offshore Aquaculture Act, which would give the Commerce Department the authority to regulate offshore aquaculture.

Rep. Nick Rahall, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, introduced the bill in April 2007 “as a favor to the administration. ” Two months earlier he had asked the Government Accountability Office to determine how such an unusual, deepwater, economic activity should be handled to protect the oceans and the food supply.

The GAO issued its 54-page report this week.

Rahall said the administration’s proposed bill doesn’t go far enough to ensure adequate protection for the marine environment.

“This new report makes abundantly clear what I have long believed – any offshore aquaculture development must be done in a manner that does not jeopardize the health of our oceans or the viability of the fishing industry,” said the West Virginia Democrat.

The GAO report identifies several important safeguards that need to be carefully considered before permits are issued to anyone. These include:
� The appointment of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration as the lead federal agency to regulate and permit any offshore aquaculture facilities.

� The clear delineation of the roles and responsibilities of other federal agencies and states in the administration of these businesses.

� The establishment of a permitting and site selection process that clearly identifies the terms and conditions for offshore aquaculture operations.

� The implementation of a regulatory process to review, monitor, and mitigate the potential environmental impacts of offshore aquaculture facilities.

The congressional investigators also called for additional research on developing fish feeds that do not rely heavily on harvesting wild fish; exploring how escaped offshore aquaculture-raised fish might impact wild fish populations; and developing strategies to breed and raise fish while effectively managing possible disease.

We’ll get into a look at the oyster, mussels, shrimp and other shellfish growers in another posting.

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