andrew schneider investigates

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.

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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.

May 28, 2009

EXCLUSIVE: New butter flavoring for popcorn and other food products may be no safer than the lung-injuring diacetyl it replaces.

Scientists worry that the “new,” “completely safe” butter flavoring used on popcorn and in other foods may be as dangerous as the lung-destroying chemical, called diacetyl, that it replaced.

Diacetyl-linked jury verdicts of tens of millions of dollars for injured flavoring workers and the diagnoses of lung damage in at least three popcorn-loving consumers forced popcorn packers and other food processors to stop using the chemical butter-flavoring two years ago.

Orville Redenbacher rose from the grave to proudly announce in a TV ad that the company’s popcorn was now diacetyl-free. And other manufacturers plastered that message in large type on the side of their packages.

popcorn-bowlAWhen asked in the last two years how they were getting the buttery flavor consumers want without diacetyl, the largest popcorn makers answered with a “no comment,” saying the secret flavoring was safe, but proprietary.

Fortunately, a group of government health investigators at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health have begun lifting the veil of corporate secrecy.

“Two possible substitutes are starter distillate and diacetyl trimmer,” NIOSH Drs. Kathleen Kreiss and Nancy Sahakian just wrote in a newly released book, “Advances in Food and Nutrition Research.

“The distillate is a diacetyl-containing product of a fermentation process. The trimmer is a molecule containing three  diacetyl  molecules,” they wrote. “The inclusion of these alternative substances neither eliminate diacetyl nor assure safety for workers.’’

Kreiss, chief of NIOSH’s Field Studies Branch, also talked about the popcorn advertisements in informal remarks prepared for the American Thoracic Society conference earlier this month in San Diego.

“The wording here (no added diacetyl) is telling,” said Kreiss, whose team of worker health and safety investigators were the first to respond to the reports of disease at Midwest popcorn plants.

In the presentation to the specialists in respiratory disease, Kreiss discussed the flavoring to which many food producers had switched.

“The easiest substitute for the chemical diacetyl is starter distillate, a fermentation product of milk which contains up to 4 percent diacetyl. The chemical may not be added, but diacetyl is still in butter-flavored popcorn,” she explained.

She said some of the substitutes are better able to penetrate to the deepest parts of the lung and are unlikely to be safer to inhale than the original diacetyl.

Physicians, scientists and industrial hygienists at NIOSH’s Division of Respiratory Disease Studies are working hard on multiple efforts to investigate the possible toxicity of butter flavoring chemicals being used as a substitute for the diacetyl.

“We’re trying to identify the mechanism of diacetyl-induced injury. And if that happens, it will help us identify other potentially hazardous compounds workers may be exposed to in the flavoring industry,” said Dr. Ann Hubbs, a veterinary pathologist in NIOSH’s Health Effects Laboratory Division.

Hubbs told me last week,  “We are trying hard to answer the question of why diacetyl — and potentially the related substances — are so very toxic,”

Kreiss and her team have responded to plants using flavorings throughout the country. They have watched patiently as OSHA first ignored and then moved haltingly to comply with congressional orders and union pleas to develop diacetyl exposure standards that would protect workers.

But even though President Obama’s new team at the Labor Department promised speedy action on diacetyl standards, many public health and occupational medicine experts worry that it may be too little, coming too late.

“As regulatory action develops, the flavor industry has introduced diacetyl substitutes, which might not be regulated by a diacetyl standard now on the drawing board,” Kreiss said in notes accompanying her slide presentation to the chest doctors.

Dr. Celeste Monforton and her colleagues at George Washington University’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health have been following the diacetyl issue for years.

She echoes NIOSH and says that OSHA and the Food and Drug Administration must pay attention to the substitutes in its rulemaking if workers and consumers are to be protected.

“We know far too little about the the substitutes to diacetyl or reformulated diacetyl-compounds that food manufacturers are now using, or planning to use,” she told me this week.

As a part of its rule making, OSHA must insist that the manufacturers provide information on the chemical composition and toxicity testing of their substitutes, she said.

“We are dealing with the safety of workers and consumers and secrecy cannot be justified,” Monforton said.

“This potential danger goes well beyond just popcorn.”

May 21, 2009

The Internet will protect us from dangerous food? It’s a start, the White House says.

Two of President Obama’s cabinet officers today launched a government website as a step in improving the nation’s food safety system or, at least, giving the public a way to see whether the White House is making any progress with a problem that each year sickens tens of thousands and kills hundreds.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack and Kathleen Sebelius, the head of HHS, were named by the president in March to run the White House Food Safety Working Group.hhs_seal_bl_thmb

Vilsack says the group will be an important tool for strengthening the food safety system, making it more accountable and accessible to the public and flexible enough to quickly resolve new food safety challenges that emerge.
USDA logo
“Families have enough to worry about. You shouldn’t have to wonder if the food you buy at the grocery store is safe,” said Health Secretary Sebelius.

Here is a link to the site which the government says will allow people to stay apprised of the group’s progress, learn about food safety tools and practices, and share their views on how to improve the food safety system.

When Obama announced the formation of the group, he told the agency head that it must “ensure that we are not just designing laws that will keep the American people safe, but enforcing them.”

Enforcement has long been a problem in the food safety arena as shown by the massive, disjointed, recall of salmonella-tainted peanuts which took months to reach a meaningful level.

The White House group says it will use a public health approach that focuses resources according to risk, applies the best available science and fights, what may be the most difficult battle: cooperation between federal, state, local and international groups.

May 18, 2009

Nanoparticle use grows in consumer products; safety testing inadequate, experts say.

Filed under: FDA,Nanotechnology,Public health legislation,Worker Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 12:21

The exciting and potentially benefit-laden world of nanoparticles continues to expand at rates that surpass the growth of any technology in history. Many public health leaders plead for caution and additional research into the widespread human and environmental hazards that could exist with use of nanotechnology. They worry that far too little is being done.
Many of you have written to ask how many products based on nanotech are on the market now or are close to being released for sale. It is almost impossible to know with great accuracy.
Most corporations decline to comment, citing proprietary or competitive concerns. The federal government keeps no tally, and a friend of mine in the Food and Drug Administration says that’s a major mistake that someday will “bite us in the butt.”
There is one group that is watching nanotechnology more closely than anyone else. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies is a partnership between the Pew Charitable Trust and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The project was formed in 2005 to address the social, political, and public safety aspects of nanotechnology.
The experts at the partnership acknowledge that their tallies are far from comprehensive, but they offer the best picture out there of what industry is doing with nanoparticles. And they offer the only inventory of consumer products around.

nano products
Here is one of their graphs and some of their facts:

The Consumer Products Inventory today lists 807 products, produced by 457 companies, located in 21 countries.

The inventory is growing fast: from 212 products when it was first released in March 2006, to 803 products in August 2008.

The largest category is health and fitness, including 126 cosmetics, 115 items of clothing, 153 personal care items, 83 types of sporting goods, 33 sunscreens and 40 water filters.
The inventory now includes products from many countries, including the United States, Korea, Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, China, Taiwan, Australia, Israel, Finland, Mexico, Switzerland, New Zealand, Malaysia, Thailand, Sweden, Singapore, Canada, and Italy.
The Washington –based researchers say U.S. based companies are marketing the most products (426), followed by companies in Asia (227), Europe (108), and elsewhere around the world (38).
I will try to post updates often on this topic. But here is a link to browse the project’s inventory database:

May 13, 2009

Law enforcement and food inspectors say they’re closely watching the success of new tests that may keep bogus honey off store shelves.

Illegal honey laundering may become a lot more difficult because French scientists from the Université de Lyon have developed and tested a simple method that can distinguish pure, natural honeys from adulterated or impure versions that they say are increasingly showing up on store shelves.

The study by Bernard Herbreteau and his colleagues in Lyon, France was released this week in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

(c) Photo by a. schneider

(c) Photo by a. schneider

“The high price, limited supply and complexity of honey combine to encourage falsification,” the scientists wrote. “Indeed, despite the technological advent of modern analytical instruments, there is still a problem with the adulteration of high-carbohydrate foods, such as honey, with inexpensive syrups.”

In the U.S., there are four major civilian labs and one government facility that claim the ability to identify adulterated honey.

Yet, when it comes to proving where the honey actually came from, criminal investigators, some U.S. regulators and a only a few of the largest domestic honey sellers send samples to a German lab. The lab says it’s the only place that can identify the precise country of origin of a honey.

Mostly, this analysis is needed to identify falsely labeled Chinese honey, which is smuggled into the U.S. after first being sent to other countries. The Chinese honey often contains illegal antibiotics, according to government authorities.

Criminal investigators from the FDA and Customs and Border Protection (that I interviewed last year) told me they were waiting for verification of the French test.

They hoped it would be faster, less expensive and more consistent and reliable than the laboratory analysis now available in the U.S.

Herbreteau and colleagues say their highly sensitive test uses a special type of chromatography to separate and identify complex sugars on their characteristic chemical fingerprints.

The most common syrups used to adulterate honey are corn syrups and high fructose corn syrup.

“Honey adulteration has evolved from the basic addition of sugar and water to specially produced syrups from which the chemical composition approximately reproduces the sugar composition and ratios of natural honey,” scientists wrote.

Here is a link if you want to see the actual study,

Links to investigative series on honey laundering by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer can be found on this website on the page called “previous investigations.”

May 11, 2009

Honey laundering thrives despite fed crackdown on two operations smuggling tainted Chinese honey into the U.S. What’s on grocery shelves?

Federal invesHoney Chinatigators from various agencies in Seattle and Chicago  chased illegally labeled Chinese honey from the slums of the Philippines through dilapidated Thai warehouses and into ports up and down the west coast of the U.S.

The paper trail showed that some of the illegal honey was bought by a huge Midwest food distributor, which supplied major grocery chains, investigators said.

Last week, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested Chung Po Liu at his home in Bellevue, Wash., and Boa Zhong Zhang and Yong Xiang Yan at LAX as they arrived from China. All were charged with conspiracy for attempting to smuggle millions of dollars worth of honey – possibly contaminated with illegal antibiotics — into the United States.

The names of all three men and their companies came up in my five-month investigation into honey laundering, which was published by the Seattle PI in December.

Three of the many things I learned during that investigation were:
    This could never happen unless honey packers and sellers in the U.S. were involved.
    There is an enormous amount of contraband honey being smuggled into this country.
    Major, legitimate U.S. honey dealers are doing little or nothing to alert the Food and Drug Administration when they encounter illegal honey.

The 68-year-old Liu heads at least two Seattle-based companies, Rainier Cascade and Evergreen Produce.  Both companies import and sell honey to a long list of packers in the U.S. Liu works with Zhang, a 58-year-old Chinese national who is employed by Changge Jixiang Bee products Ltd., in Changge City, Henan Province.

Yan, according to investigators, is the president of the same Chinese honey manufacturing company which has 528 employees and has been in the honey business since 1985.
Yan was arrested for supplying tainted Chinese honey to Alfred L. Wolff, a major food distribution company in Chicago. Wolff supplies honey to packagers who sell it under a score of different brands across the U.S., investigators say.

A Customs and Border Patrol agent in a Tacoma, Wash. warehouse draws samples of Chinese honey that is being shipped to Chicago.  (c) Photot by a. schneider

A Customs and Border Patrol agent in a Tacoma, Wash. warehouse draws samples of Chinese honey that is being shipped to Chicago. (c) Photo by a. schneider

The criminal complaint, filed in Chicago, said the charges against Yan stem from an ongoing investigation (entering its third year) of the honey importing practices of Wolff, which is owned by Wolff & Olsen, headquartered in Hamburg, Germany.
An FDA investigator familiar with the Chicago company told me that invoices he’d seen from two manufacturers who bought from Wolff showed that most of the honey was being sold to major grocery chains, where it was labeled as produced in the United States or Canada.
He said he didn’t know whether the chains that bought the bogus honey were notified of its actual country of origin. He added that he doubted it.
It is almost impossible for those who import and sell honey not to know that it’s Chinese. The price of honey from China is usually only about a third of the cost of honey from Canada, South America or other credible suppliers.

For example, Ron Phipps, of CPNA International, Ltd., publishes a frequent international market report on honey. In a recent issue, he explained that in January, 1.2 million pounds of honey entered this country at 37-cents a pound. At the same time, Canadian honey was crossing the border at about $1.55 a pound.

Leigh Winchell, special agent in charge of the Seattle office of ICE, said, “Those who misrepresent the origin of goods imported into the United States are motivated by greed and unfairly seek a financial advantage over those who play by the rules.’’

The issue goes beyond just the millions in import duties that were being stolen from U.S. coffers.  There are potential health risks involved because millions of China’s hives were destroyed by a virulent disease that swept through the country’s hives at tsunami speed. Beekeepers grabbed the strongest and cheapest antibiotics they could find – two from India and one from China – to fight back.

The most prevalent antibiotic was chloramphenicol. The drug is used to treat serious infections in humans, but is not approved by the FDA for use in food producing animals, including bees.

Honey containing chloramphenicol is deemed unsafe and adulterated within the meaning of the federal food and drug laws, Andrew Boutros, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago. said.

The presence of the antibiotic, even small amounts, is illegal.

During the PI investigation, I followed paper trails of illegally laundered shipments from China to countries throughout Asia and the South Pacific, where it was re-labeled to make it appear it was a product of those other countries. Then it was shipped on to the U.S.

Once those stories ran, people sent the PI evidence showing that Chinese honey was also being transshipped from Europe, South America and at least one African country.

The arrests and the investigation leading up to them demonstrated creative police work by ICE, Customs and Border Protection agents, and the offices of two U.S. Attorneys.  It was a solid, on the ground, door-knocking investigation that involved chasing intricate, multi-lingual paper trails.  (You just gotta love those search warrants.)

If found guilty of the conspiracy charges, the accused could face a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

April 13, 2009

Asbestos found in Chinese talc used in hundreds of medicines. What about our meds?

Here’s something that if it doesn’t scare the hell out of you, it should at least make you wonder.

First some background.

For decades, talc, the finely ground white powder, has been used in a multitude of ways from dusting surgical gloves, condoms and balloons to a sculpting material for artists, baby and body powder and cosmetics. But a use for talc that touches more people than anything else is its function as an excipient, the inactive ingredient carrying the actual medication in thousands of prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

A valued friend and mentor of mine works in Hong Kong. He’s an American public health specialist and part of a product safety team advising the Chinese on the safety of its consumer products. He sent me clippings from two Korean newspapers — the Joong Ang Daily and the Chosun.

Both publications quoted officials at the Korean Food and Drug Administration reporting several Korean pharmaceutical companies voluntarily halted the sale of drugs that contain talc, which is suspected to be contaminated with asbestos.

Another story quoted the Korean agency as reporting that more than 1,000 specific medications have been ordered off the shelves.

The American safety consultant said that as many as 400 Korean companies purchase talc used in their medication from a single company that import its talc from China.

The news reports identified the company as Duksan Pure Chemicals and said, “The banned items will range from drugs for minor ailments like cold and anemia to those for chronic diseases including high blood pressure and diabetes.”

Most large pharmaceutical firms import talc material from Japan and the United States where rules on asbestos are stricter, a news agency said and then added, “that in the European Union and the United States, manufacturers have been regulated to refine talc thoroughly to remove all asbestos since 2005 and 2006 respectively.”

I’m glad the Koreans believe that. But, according to the news reports, they also believe that that the small amount of asbestos in the medication “isn’t harmful.”  This is hard to believe because no one, to my knowledge, has ever determined a threshold dose for asbestos – the amount that will cause disease.

I shook an FDA friend out of bed last night and, after he stopped cursing, he said, “Of course, we check all medication for dangerous contaminants. Don’t we? We should.”

Some of you who may have been following my ramblings on asbestos for way too many years, might remember that after the Seattle PI broke the Libby – W.R. Grace story, we looked at other operations where workers were dying from exposure to asbestos contaminating the talc, taconite and other minerals they mined. One operation was the country’s largest talc supplier in upstate New York.

We wound up on their doorstep after we identified asbestos in the talc that the world’s largest crayon makers added for strength.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission was dragged kicking and screaming into doing something only after ABC News and school boards across the country confirmed our finding.

We gave a list of U.S. products that contained talc to the CPSC, which, according to a congressional investigator, did nothing, reportedly because the Office of Management and Budget thought any CPSC action would be an undue burden on the manufacturers.

I’ve sent a query this morning to the FDA asking the same question I asked my sleepy friend. Hopefully, I’ll get an answer from someone I can quote without endangering his or her job.

I also emailed several addresses at the Duksan chemical company asking whether they shipped the Chinese talc to companies in the U.S. and Canada.

I’ll let you know if either group replies.

March 18, 2009

It’s the law. Country of origin must be labeled on many food items but thousands still slip through the government net

Filed under: FDA,Food Safety,Seafood,USDA — Andrew Schneider @ 09:29

There was a time when imported food was coveted, a way to impress your neighbors, friends and colleagues with prosciutto from Italy, sea conchs from Chile, stinky cheese from Denmark, eggplant preserve from Greece, snails from France, and the list went on. 

However, now that a good hunk of our food comes from abroad two things have happened. First, the novelty has worn off, with even the most exotic products available at the corner store. But second, some of that intriguing “foreign” food has been bad. Not a lot, but enough to get the attention of shoppers. 

Many consumers don’t even want to buy rice from China, but we can’t blame all the lack of attention to food safety to overseas suppliers. salmon-with-cool-tags

It has been months since the first reports of salmonella poisoning from Georgia peanuts surfaced, and again today I received emails from the FDA warning me of nine additional peanut products to avoid. 

As of Monday, and at long last, the USDA has given food shoppers what they think they want – a country of origin or COOL label on many grocery store products.

The new detailed label is supposed to be affixed to farm-raised shellfish and fish, most poultry, beef, lamb, pork and goat, and almost all perishable fruits, vegetables and nuts.

But as I’ve warned before, the program that will cost between $60 million and $100 million a year to implement, has enormous loopholes which exclude mandatory labeling on thousands of processed foods and mixtures.

For example, mix carrots from Chile with peas from Honduras, and the country of origin need not be revealed. The same applies to chicken or meat that’s breaded, marinated or processed in any way.

The labeling is designed to give consumers more information on where the food they buy comes from, but the government stresses that the new labels do not ensure the quality or safety of the food to which they’re attached. 

However, if the FDA if recalling tomatoes from Mexico or peppers from Guatemala or lettuce from Brazil, the labels would give careful shoppers more information on what to avoid.

Country-of-origin labeling is not new.

Karen Nachay of Food Technology magazine says that almost 80 years ago, the Tariff Act of 1930 required that all manufactured goods imported into the United States list the country of origin.

Getting this labeling law implemented is a complex and sometimes ugly story but Karen’s article does an outstanding job of giving the reader a detailed look at how COOL was stalled, delayed and finally passed, and what it really means to both consumers and the food industry. Here is the link to her fine story. I just wish I had it years ago when I was stumbling to understand the issue.

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March 17, 2009

New DOL boss may really care about workers exposed to lung destroying diacetyl on the job. About time someone in Washington did something.

Yesterday, the newly appointed Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, ordered the agency’s first definitive steps to prevent workers’ exposure to food flavorings chemicals containing diacetyl.

It was Dec. 21, 2007 when I wrote about a study commissioned by my now defunct newspaper which showed that top-selling butter substitutes – cooking oils, sprays and margarines – when heated, release diacetyl vapors. The risk was about non-existent to home cooks, but could present a significant hazard to professional chefs who spend hours a day working over a inadequately vented hot grill.

Fernando Herrera, a former worker at a California flavoring plant has been told that 70 percent of his lungs have been damaged by diacetyl exposure.  Photo by A. Schneider

Fernando Herrera, a former worker at a California flavoring plant has been told that 70 percent of his lungs have been damaged by diacetyl exposure. Photo by A. Schneider

Unions and much of the public heath community was concerned. But, under the Bush administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration pretty much ignored orders of Congress and pleas from the occupational medicine experts to develop exposure standards for workers exposed to diacetyl on the job.

The Food and Drug Agency did even less.

The FDA-approved chemical flavoring never went through the comprehensive testing demanded of most food additives because industry ruled that it was “Generally Regarded As Safe,” a designation that shielded it from the scrutiny that safety demands.

I’m not sure how much comfort the shoddy FDA blessing is to the hundreds of popcorn plants workers sicken or killed when their lungs were destroyed by bronchiolitis obliterans which is caused by exposure to the butter flavoring. Scores of workers in other flavoring and food processing companies are also reporting the disease.

“I am alarmed that workers exposed to food flavorings containing diacetyl may continue to be at risk of developing a potentially fatal lung disease. Exposure to this harmful chemical already has been linked to the deaths of three workers,” said Solis.

“These deaths are preventable, and it is imperative that the Labor Department move quickly to address exposure to food flavorings containing diacetyl and eliminate unnecessary steps without affecting the public’s ability to comment on the rulemaking process.”

California Rep. Lynn Woolsey, chair of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee, said Solis’ action announcement will withdraw a Bush era procedural roadblock to that slowed protections for workers who handle diacetyl.

“This is good news for the thousands of workers who handle this dangerous food flavoring, all who up until now have done so at the risk of their own health,” Woolsey said today.

What Solis did withdraw the question of diacetyl safety from an elaborate multi-step and time consuming process called Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

Without that roadblock, regulations protecting workers can be instituted far more quickly, a labor department lawyer told me late last night. He added, that opportunity for comment from the public and industry is retained.

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