andrew schneider investigates

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 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 6, 2009

Popcorn lung, a sometimes lethal disease caused by inhaling chemical butter flavoring, has been found among candy makers.

Filed under: Diacetyl,Food additives,Government & corporate wrong-doing — Andrew Schneider @ 08:54

A recently identified outbreak of severe cases of popcorn lung among former candy factory workers may prove what government and civilian occupational health experts have long feared – the sometimes-fatal disease can afflict those exposed to diacetyl butter flavoring regardless of where they work.

Five patients were diagnosed so far this year with bronchiolitis obliterans by two physicians – Drs. Allan Parmet and David Egilman. Both doctors are occupational medicine specialists who had, over the past ten years, diagnosed the rare disease in hundreds of workers in Midwest microwave popcorn factories.

These patients worked as candy makers at a now closed Brach’s Candy plant on Chicago’s west side, says the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The union is concerned that workers in other plants that use diacetyl may be exposed to disabling or lethal levels of chemical flavoring agents and not know it.

“What could be gentler than being a candy maker, doing butterscotch and butter toffee and all those sweet goodies that children love?” Doris Stubbs asked me last week. When she came to the phone, it took her about three minutes to gasp in enough air to speak with me.

The mother of five said she worked for Brach Candy for 22 years and “loved about every minute of it” until she had such a hard time breathing that, in 2002, she had to use oxygen almost all the time. She has a basket of inhalers and pills to help her get through the day.

“Who ever thought that being a candy maker would make me this sick,” the 65-year-old woman said. She told me that several of her fellow workers also had become sick. Some had died “from breathing problems.

“I was never worried. We were just making candy, and they never told us the flavorings we were using were dangerous,” she said.

There is no indication that consumers are at risk from eating food, or in this case candy containing diacetyl.    Photo by A.Schneider

There is no indication that consumers are at risk from eating food, or in this case candy containing diacetyl. Photo by A.Schneider

They never told Don Stevens either.

“I’m the lucky one so far. I have problems breathing a lot but I’m not on oxygen,” he told me last week.

“Other people got a lot sicker. We didn’t know the flavoring that I used to cook up butter toffee, butterscotch and some kind of butter cinnamon mixture could harm our lungs,” Stevens said. “We were just never told.”

Over the years I’ve written about several cases of isolated workers reportedly sickened by diacetyl in mom and pop flavoring plants in California, snack makers in Tennessee and multiple employees at large flavor producers in Ohio. The Chicago candy worker cases appear to be the first – since the popcorn episodes – in which many employees were exposed at a facility where the butter flavoring was used in products being sold.

It was two years ago that health and safety officials for the nation’s largest unions and occupational medicine activists petitioned the Department of Labor to order OSHA to broaden its examination of diacetyl beyond popcorn workers. But many of those inside the agency says there is little or no interest in worrying about the thousands of other manufacturers who still use the chemical.

Last week, LaMont Byrd, director of the Teamsters Safety & Health Department, addressed the Chicago cluster of illness.

“There may be other workers in the hard candy manufacturing industry and other end users who may be at risk of experiencing adverse health effects due to exposures to chemicals used to make these products,” said Byrd.

He praised the recent steps by U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis to speed up rulemaking to address exposure to diacetyl, but says, “OSHA and NIOSH must further investigate this matter to protect workers who are currently exposed to these hazards.”

The union wants NIOSH, which is the worker health and safety research arm of the CDC, to check out the other candy plants that use the suspect flavoring.

NIOSH spokesman Fred Blosser says his agency is aware of the “case cluster ” but told me, “Since the (Brach) plant isn’t in operation any longer, we don’t have a situation where we can do a health hazards evaluation (HHE).”

An HHE is the detailed inspection in which NIOSH’s varied public health specialists are permitted into a plant to determine what is causing illness or injury among workers.

However, this morning, a teamster official said that they are having discussions with OSHA about inspecting candy plants in Tennessee.

Meanwhile, lawsuits against the suppliers of the butter flavoring to popcorn plants continue to be tried.
A trial begins today in a suit filed against Cincinnati-based Givaudan Flavors Corp. and New York-based International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. of New York.

The plaintiff is 48-year-old Kathryn Rayburn who developed bronchiolitis obliterans while working at a ConAgra plant that produced Orville Redenbacher and other popular brands of popcorn.

Egliman, who is scheduled to testify on the woman’s behalf, wrote a peer-reviewed article in the medical journal International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health called ” Popcorn-worker Lung Caused by Corporate and Regulatory Negligence: An Avoidable Tragedy.”   In the paper, Egliman, who is also an associate professor of public health at Brown University, wrote about eight workers from the Ohio plant who contracted the lung destroying disease. One, he said, had died of the disease.

The physician has long been critical of companies that conceal hazards from their workers and of government regulatory agencies that don’t do their job in protecting these employees.
“The cluster of new cases of bronchiolitis obliterans among candy makers has got to be the signal to even the most lethargic government agency that more workers – hundreds if not thousands – that use these chemical flavoring agents are in danger,” said Egilman.
“I’d use the cliché and say it was a wakeup call, but that happened years ago at the popcorn plants and OSHA has yet to do anything meaningful.”

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.

February 9, 2009

Flavoring maker fights on to keep safety inspectors out

At times like these I think I should change the name of my blog to “Tales of the Absurd.”

This example centers on a year-long court battle between an Indianapolis flavor manufacturer and the government’s top occupational safety investigators. The fact that the company has gone to federal court to keep the federal health and safety wizards from protecting the workers from a sometimes lethal chemical strikes many as well beyond absurd.

At the heart of the dispute is the health of 200 workers at Sensient Flavors International and a chemical mixture that they use called diacetyl, which has killed several and sickened hundreds of workers in plants across the country that use the synthetic butter flavoring. That would include thousands of candies, cookies, baked goods, prepared food products and cooking oils and sprays.

On the other side of the courtroom are the feds – physicians, toxicologists and industrial hygienists – who work for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Their battle to control exposure to his chemical concoction soared into prominence in August —-2000 when the NIOSH team was called to investigate an outbreak of bronchiolitis obliterans in former workers of Missouri microwave-popcorn plant.

Within months, they found the same irreversible lung disease in other workers at popcorn plants in the Midwest.

The fight with Sensient began almost a year ago when the local Teamsters union representing the plant’s workers asked NIOSH, the worker-safety research arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to inspect the plant, which it did.

But when I interviewed Teamster health and safety officials last year they said the company had altered the production process while the feds were inspecting and taking air samples and that the investigators failed to get an accurate idea of the conditions.

NIOSH told Sensient that it wanted to return and take more samples and interview additional workers because “pulmonary abnormalities” uncovered during its first inspection demanded a “second and more extensive examination,” an agency official told me.

The- Indianapolis Business Journal said that Sensient acknowledges federal law gave NIOSH authority to conduct the first inspection. But it says no new information had emerged that would give the feds the right to go through the “highly invasive process” again.

“NIOSH is attempting to use Sensient’s facility as its own personal laboratory,” the company complained in a federal lawsuit filed in July. The company demanded in the lawsuit that the second inspection be blocked.

Dr. David Egilman, a occupational medicine specialist and Clinical Associated Professor at Brown University, who has been examining patients harmed by diacetyl since the first popcorn cases, calls Sensient’s position absurd and dangerous.

“If any one is experimenting, it is Sensient and the guinea pigs are their workers. It is just outrageous that this company that has never tested the toxicity of any of the chemicals it puts in our food has gall to block government researchers efforts to determine if they stuff they are adding to food will kill or injure us,” said Egilman, who has testified on behalf of the injured workers in many of the lawsuits they brought against flavoring companies.

The legal game playing continues in federal court with both sides battling whether discovery requests are too broad or too narrow and other courtroom tactics.

Meanwhile, the workers continue to mix the diacetyl into flavorings that are being shipped to scores of food-processing plants where other workers will be exposed to the faux butter flavoring.

In related news, after Senate and House hearings, union demands and insistent bellowing of safety activists, OSHA has taken the first step in actually doing something to prevent workers from having diacetyl destroy their lungs.

The agency has asked for public comments on issues related to occupational exposure to diacetyl and food flavorings containing diacetyl. Someone has already submitted the P-I story from 2007 of diacetyl exposure to professional and home cooks from butters, sprays and oils containing the food flavoring. This is a link to the PI’s story on diacetyl.

There is no indication that the Food and Drug Administration, which approved the use of diacetyl years ago without any agency testing, will order any testing of the food flavoring.

December 31, 2008

Chinese honey seeps through U.S. border.

I know. I have done a horrible job of keeping the blog active and interesting and many have expressed your views on my laziness or concerns on my demise. For the past few months I have been on the road chasing several stories that raised possible public health issues.

We finally got one into print and on to the web. It’s called “Honey Laundering,” and this is a link to a collection of the six stories.

Honey? A public health concern?

Bizarre. I agree.

But in answer to several dozen e-mails, allow me to chat a bit on how and why I did the stories.

It started innocently enough, as many complex stories do. One of my colleagues – our brilliant port reporter � mention that a friend had bought a jar of honey with “Product of Washington State,” on the label and wasn’t sure whether it was even real honey.

I called around to the analytical laboratories that we usually use to test “things” for contaminants. Even though the P-I’s ($$$$$) lab bills have sent the offspring of the labs’ owners to fine, private universities, they all said they didn’t have the technology to tell us the geographic source of the flowers the bees hit up for the honey.

So I called an old friend in a federal lab near DC and she lamented that none of the government labs could answer that questions and gave me the names of three civilian labs in Texas, Massachusetts and Oregon that analyze honey samples for the feds.

Huh? Why is our government testing honey anyhow?

I called the labs and yes, they said, they do test honey for the government � for things like adulteration � where liquids and sweet syrups � corn, cane, rice and others � are added to dilute pure honey into something much, much cheaper to produce and that brings in a significantly higher profit.

More importantly, they also said they test for a cheap animal antibiotic called chloramphenicol, which can cause serious illness or death among a very small percentage of people exposed to it. And sometimes other antibiotics called iprofloxacin and Enrofloxacin.

Finally, I got it through my thick skull that what they were testing, in almost all cases, was foreign honey. I had no clue that U.S. bees produce about only a third of the honey we consume.

This is how we got the story:

The information came from about 180 plus interviews, 422 e-mails, elaborate databases of thousands of ocean shipping documents from Import-Genus and Trade-Mining LLC. Daniel Lathrop’s (our computer guru) skillful manipulations of customs and Commerce Department tallies of honey shipments crossing the Canadian and Mexican borders and Aubrey Cohen, our real estate wizard, who translated Russian letters and customs documents.

However, the truth would never have shown through without help and patience of lots of beekeepers, honey importers and packers, apiculturists, some federal agents who help sort through misinformation being shoveled by their Washington headquarters. Especially surprising was the help offered in Canada, Russia, Thailand, Vietnam, India and Australia from honey brokers and producers, Foreign and U.S. overseas trade and ICE officials, and honey associations.

I encountered some really amazing people, and I’ll write a bit about some of them in coming days.

For those of you who don’t want to wade through the stories, here are the points they make: Most U.S. and Canadian honey is of high quality and safe; the large majority of honey consumed in the U.S. is imported; millions of pounds of Chinese honey destine for the U.S., is transshipped and frequently mislabeled as coming from a different foreign country; some importers and honey packers are in on the con; federal investigators and some large honey importer say they still find Chinese honey tainted with illegal medications; FDA, USDA and customs agents have far too much on their plates to pay much attention to honey and only a smallest fraction of honey seeping through out borders is ever tested.

So I ask myself why did I spend so long on a topic that presents � when compared to other issues � such a benign risk?

This comment from David Westervelt, one of Florida State’s 15 highly trained apiculture inspectors, may explain my concern:

“Someday, some really harmful honey will be shipped into this country, and a lot of people will get sick or worse – and then the government will do something about it,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to wait for people to get sick.”

November 13, 2008

Engineered corn causes reduced fertility

Want something new to worry about?

A study released this week by the Austrian government shows that Monsanto’s genetically engineered corn will reduce fertility � at least in laboratory mice.

The Center for Food Safety said the “important study” funded by the Austrian Ministry of The Health, Families, and Youth “is cause for great concern over the long-term consumption of genetically engineered crops.”

Bill Freese, the science policy analyst for the center said: “It’s no surprise to us that U.S. regulators did not catch this. None of our regulatory agencies require any long-term animal feeding trials before allowing genetically engineered crops on the market.

“The FDA must stop letting biotech companies self-certify their (modified) crops as safe, and instead establish strict, mandatory testing requirements, including long-term animal feeding trials,” he added.

I asked the USDA and FDA whether this is correct, but they haven’t gotten back to me yet.

For 20 weeks, Dr. J�rgen Zentek, veterinary medicine professor at the University of Vienna, and his team fed mice diets consisting of either 33 percent genetically engineered corn or the same amount of corn that wasn’t messed with by Monsanto.

The study found that mice fed the GE corn diet had fewer litters, fewer total offspring, and more females with no offspring, than mice feed the conventional corn.

The scientist attributed the reduced fertility to the engineered corn feed, and said it might be related to unintended effects of the genetic modification process. Zentek said that further studies are “urgently needed” to corroborate his team’s findings.

Monsanto modified the corn to survive direct spraying with its Roundup herbicide, while a built-in insecticide kills certain

“This study should serve as a wake-up call to governments around the world that genetically engineered foods could cause long-term health damage,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center, a nonprofit food-safety advocacy organization,

He added: “The center calls upon national and international authorities to place a moratorium on the distribution of GE products for human consumption unless or until their safety can be undeniably established.”

Here is a link to an English version of the study so you can evaluate for yourself.

This just in from Monsanta:

The St. Louis-based, worldwide supplier of chemicals and engineered seeds, reacted quckly to comments Greenpeace made on the Austrian study.

The chemical giant pointed out that the study was not peer-reviewed and was “inconsistent with over a decade of reputable, peer-reviewed, scientific studies, including multi-generational studies, which demonstrate and confirm the safety of GM crops.”

Jerry Hjelle, a Monsanto VP, said that activist groups for years have attempted to call into question the safety of biotech crops.

“The safety of our products is our utmost priority,” he said. “We are already examining the on-line report along with other evidence assessing the safety of GM corn.”

Huh. Okay.

November 12, 2008

Better food inspections needed

Concerns over food safety appears to be one more thing that Americans want shoved onto President-elect Obama’s overflowing plate to make their government more responsive.

According to a poll by Consumer Reports, the vast majority of citizens want “Country of Origin Labeling” loopholes closed and the Food and Drug Administration to inspect the domestic and foreign food supply every month.

Some of the people rumored to be on Obama’s short list to head the FDA have publicly supported this type of increased surveillance in speeches and articles.

“The American public wants to know more about their food, where it comes from, how safe it is, and will vote with their dollars to support highly meaningful labels,” says Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union

While 73 percent of those polled by the Consumer Reports National Research Center currently regard the overall food supply as safe, nearly half said their confidence in the safety of the nation’s food supply has decreased, the public interest research group said.

In addition, 83 percent of respondents are concerned with harmful bacteria or chemicals in food and 81 percent are concerned with the safety of imported food.

The great area of concern the pollsters found was the frequency that the government inspects food production facilities.

While USDA inspects meat plants daily, FDA inspects domestic food production facilities once every 5 to 10 years, and foreign facilities even less frequently, Rangan said.

The American public, however, expects the FDA to conduct hands-on reviews of food-processing plants far more often. In fact, two-thirds of respondents said the FDA should inspect domestic and foreign food-processing facilities at least once a month.

Mandatory country-of-origin labeling for meats, fish, produce and peanuts was finally implemented on Sept. 30, but 80 percent say there are large loopholes that consumers want closed.

For example, the group said that meat and poultry sold in butcher shops and fish sold in fish markets — 11 percent of all meat and fish — are currently exempt from country-of-origin labeling.

For more on what consumers cared about, here is a link to the poll results.

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