andrew schneider investigates

May 26, 2009

Crime lab tools can identify mislabeled and smuggled seafood faster and easier and diners might get the fish they pay for.

Filed under: Food labeling,Food Safety,Government & corporate wrong-doing,Seafood — Andrew Schneider @ 05:37

Food scientists are taking a page out of the crime fighting handbook to figure out whether consumers and restaurants are actually getting the seafood they are paying for.

A study published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology demonstrates that a DNA testing can quickly and inexpensively  tell you whether the fish you’re paying for is actually what you thought you were buying.

Food Scientist Rosalee Rasmussen

Food Scientist Rosalee Rasmussen Photo by Lynn Ketchum

“Fish and seafood substitution has become an important concern in domestic and international marketplaces, in part due to increased international trade, per capita seafood consumption, and production of processed foods,” says Rosalee Rasmussen of Oregon State University seafood laboratories in Astoria.

Investigators with the Food and Drug Administration say “economic deception or fraud in the sale of seafood occurs when a less expensive species is substituted for a more expensive species.” And, they added, “this misbranding is a federal crime.”

In the past, federal investigators have brought charges against importers and suppliers who knowingly misidentified species of fish to avoid paying steep import tariffs imposed to protect both U.S. fishers and endangered fish.

In at least two of the cases, the motivation to test the seafood came from obvious fraud on the shipping papers and, in the other, an informant.

Less expensive rockfish is often substituted for more expensive red snapper; yellowtail tuna instead of Mahi; sea bass for halibut; farm-raised Atlantic salmon for the finer tasting and richer wild Pacific, and even roe from paddlefish labeled as caviar from sturgeon.

In the article, Rasmussen and Prof. Michael Morrissey with the university’s Food Innovation Center in Portland, examined the impact of identifying bogus fish using the DNA techniques more common to CSI crime labs.

Both Rasmussen and federal food investigators say the amount of mislabeling actually is difficult to pin down because there is very little monitoring of the commercial fish supplies

“For example,” Rasmussen told me, “over 80 percent of the U.S. seafood supply is imported, but the FDA only examines about 2 percent of imported seafood.”

Last week, an FDA supervisor said she agreed with the Oregon scientists.

“We have so very few inspectors watching imported food that seafood is really low on the list,” she said. But “things may get better,” she said, because in March President Obama said he would “substantially increase the number of (FDA) food inspectors and modernize food safety labs.”

William Marler, one of the nation’s top food safety litigators, described the mislabeling as more of a fraud issue than a safety concern because fish and other seafood products, imported or not, make up a very small part of food that poisons consumers.

“From a consumer’s perspective of knowing if what they’re paying for is actually the seafood they thought they were buying, spot DNA testing makes much sense,” said the Seattle-based lawyer.

The food journal article is a compilation of substitution studies conducted by many scientists who have examined whitefish, such as hake, Pollock, and cod; tunas such as skipjack, albacore, yellowfin, and bluefin; and sturgeons, sharks and even commercial whale meat, Rasmussen explained.

I spoke to buyers and fishmongers at two national food chains who said they rarely get taken because they work closely with their suppliers and usually deal with the whole fish, which is easier to identify before it’s packaged as filets or steaks.  Much more likely targets, they said, are restaurants or institutional buyers who purchase much of their imported fish cut and packaged into serving sizes.

Rasmussen  cautioned that diners and consumers will have a much more difficult time telling if mislabeling has occurred if their dinner  has been further processed, such as breaded and fried.

Here is a link to the journal article.

For a more extensive listing of seafood most often wrongly labeled, here is a link to an FDA website.


May 16, 2009

Kill step and an adequate lethality. We can’t be talking about food.

salmonella   Photo CDC

Why would words like “kill step” and “adequate lethality” be in the lexicon of the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration and major manufacturers of heat-to-eat food?

After putting aside all the complex government and scientific explanations, these war-like sounding phrases are steps that food producers hope and expect consumers will take to keep from being poisoned by salmonella.

I began chasing this issue a bit last year and when I spoke to food scientists at USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service. They told me that adequate lethality is a kill step, the point where the precise combination of temperature and cooking time will kill biological hazards in food.

They said that far too many consumers wrongly believe that when they pull a frozen meal from the freezer in the grocery it has already been treated to eliminate contamination to salmonella and other bacteria that can cause painful illness and sometimes death.

What most consumers don’t understand is that food packagers, especially those who manufacture frozen food, expect the consumer to take the kill step. The problem is that most shoppers have no clue that this safety burden has been dumped in their pot.

The Association of Food, Beverage and Consumer Products Companies issued guidelines last year for their food production members to pay special attention to instructions given to consumers when it came to foods “not-ready-to-eat.”

They documented that many consumers believe that food is heated for palatability or taste, but is not required for food safety. Because of this belief, people can and do become ill.

The association urged its members to develop instructions for preparing their frozen products that make it clear that the “food must be cooked at a time/temperature combination sufficient to reduce the number of pathogens that might be present . . . to a safe level.”

The key here is not heating, but cooking to the point required to “kill pathogenic microorganisms that may be present in many frozen entrees,” the guidelines cautioned.

A decade or more ago many food processors began labeling their products with phrases such as “Oven Ready,” “Cook and Serve,” and “Ready to Cook,” assuming that consumers would understand that cooking was necessary for safety, not just taste.

The FSIS safety specialists told me that among their greatest were frozen food that is microwaved since uneven heating of foods in microwave ovens has been implicated as a key factor in improperly cooked food products. This non-uniform heating leads to cold spots in the product, which may allow the survival of pathogens such as salmonella.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a national food safety advocacy group, explained that its researchers found that the most dangerous products to be cooked in a microwave are frozen uncooked, breaded chicken and turkey products, some breaded fish and frozen meat and poultry pot pies.

If you want more information on this battle of the bacteria, I urge you to read a fine, comprehensive piece of journalism by New York Times’ writer Michael Moss in Friday’s edition. It may shock you into cooking your foods long enough to make them safe to eat.

Here is a link to it.

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.

January 15, 2009

Did poisoned U.S. dog food kill Chinese dogs?

Filed under: FDA,Food - good, bad, weird,Food labeling,Food poisoning — Andrew Schneider @ 11:01

First, the Chinese poisoned our dogs and cats with contaminated pet food. Now Chinese authorities say a real or counterfeit brand of U.S.-made food � Optima – has killed or sickened dozens of dogs in several Chinese cities.

Ryan McLaughlin, a Canadian who lives in Suzhou, China, says he spent Christmas and New Year’s Day painfully watching Addie, his year-old golden retriever, die as her liver shut down after being poisoned by contaminants in the Optima dog food he says the pup was fed.

Addie from Ryan McLaughlin

He writes in his blog of the ordeal of trying to keep Addie alive and of how outraged he was that representatives of the Chinese company that imported the dog food came to the vet where Addie was being treated and said that they would cover all medical costs and, in the event of her death, they would come up with compensation of some sort.

“How exactly do they calculate that?” McLaughlin wrote. “Pro-rated from time of birth with a bonus for a good temperament and numbers of hours trained?

He said he understands that the company was doing damage control, but “they very likely killed my dog and actually had the audacity (to say) they’ll reimburse us based on book value for the breed plus a bit for pain and suffering.”

Addie and the other dogs were apparently sicken by a lethal aflatoxins contaminating the grain used in the food. The fungi is poisonous by-products that can be found on all grains and peanuts. It causes aflatoxicosis, which attacks the liver of animals and humans, and exposure to high levels can lead to acute liver failure or death within days.

Chinese press reports say the Ministry of Agriculture has ordered that sales of Optima be halted as they attempt to track the source of the tainted dog food.

While Optima is the name of an American dog food brand, it was unclear if the food sold in China came from the United States.

In the U.S., Optima products are sold by Mars Inc., which markets several popular brands of dog food.

Optima Dog Food

I asked Mars what they knew about the poisonings. Debra Fair, Mars’ public relations manager, said they were investigating the “situation.”

“Mars is aware of recent reports that dogs in the People’s Republic of China have died as a result of consuming what appeared to be Optima brand pet food. However, Mars does not sell Optima branded products in China,” Fair wrote me in an e-mail.

“Our initial findings suggest that the affected pet food was not manufactured by, nor under the authority of, Mars or any of its affiliated companies.”

She told me that Mars only sells that dog food in Taiwan.

But that statement does nothing to clarify the source of the poisoned food because Chinese officials said the Optima that sickened the dogs was imported to China through a Taiwan company, Natural Pet.

Fair said Mars will continue its investigation into this matter, “including working closely with FDA and other regulatory authorities who are investigating this situation.”

I’ve contacted the Taiwan exporter and the FDA for more information, but haven’t heard back yet.

Over the past four years, FDA has recalled hundreds of U.S. brands of pet food containing tainted wheat gluten and the chemical melamine. In 2007, that was the case with more than 150 brands of cat and dog food, after some pets became ill or died from kidney failure after eating food from China.

Last year, Mars Petcare US announced a recall of dry cat and dog food products manufactured at its Allentown, Penn., facility because of potential contamination with salmonella.

Vitamins + water + sugar + hype = Coke lawsuit

Filed under: FDA,Food - good, bad, weird,Food labeling,Risks to children — Andrew Schneider @ 09:46

A class-action suit was filed this morning against the Coca-Cola Co. alleging deceptive and unsubstantiated claims on its VitaminWater line of beverages.

The suit was filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest which claims that Coke markets VitaminWater as a healthful alternative to soda by labeling its several flavors with such health buzz words as “defense,” “rescue,” “energy,” and “endurance.”

The company makes a wide range of dramatic claims, including that its drinks variously reduce the risk of chronic disease, reduce the risk of eye disease, promote healthy joints, and support optimal immune function, said the Washington, D.C. based nonprofit health advocacy group.

However, the group’s nutritionists says that the 33 grams of sugar in each bottle of VitaminWater do more to promote obesity, diabetes, and other health problems than the vitamins in the drinks do to perform the advertised benefits listed on the bottles.

“Coke fears, probably correctly, that they’ll sell less soda as Americans become increasingly concerned with obesity, diabetes, and other conditions linked to diets too high in sugar,” said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner.

“VitaminWater is Coke’s attempt to dress up soda in a physician’s white coat. Underneath, it’s still sugar water, albeit sugar water that costs about ten bucks a gallon.”

For the other side of the story, here is a link to VitaminWater’s website.

January 14, 2009

Watch those labels

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Food labeling — Andrew Schneider @ 15:47

The bees may be in their winter sleep period but their beekeepers are meeting in Reno and the honey packers association was evaluating its piece of the sweet industry in Fresno last week. New leadership and new ideas buzzing all over the place.

Meanwhile, back here in Seattle, I’’m still receiving dozens of e-mails and phone calls about the series of stories on imported Chinese honey that we ran last month, but I thought this one from Gordon Mitchell was worth sharing.

He said that after reading the articles he has a different view of supermarket honey.

“”It changed even more Saturday night,” he said, “when some friends came over. They brought a small honey gift, and as we sat down to eat we decided to try it. One of our friends tried the gift on some bread. He got a funny look on his face and said, “This tastes like soap.”

“Well, it was soap,” Mitchell said. Reading the fine print on the label, they discovered that they were sampling “The Savannah Bee Company, Orange Blossom Honey, Hand Soap.”

“It was in the food section of the store,” said the Woodinville shopper.

Be careful out there.

January 13, 2009

Dogs are dying in China. Why?

A Chinese public health specialist who helped me a bit with last month’s series of stories on the dangers from some imported honey from his country, called me this morning to say that his bosses in the Beijing government are “going to crack down” on their country’s food safety problems.

I would be naive to think that chloramphenicol and the other illegal antibiotics that tainted much of the Chinese honey that is smuggled into the U.S. would be at the top of the list, and, according to my friend, it isn’t.

“It will be addressed along the way. The Health Ministry will start off trying to control all additives to all food products, and there will be a unit that pays special attention to a food that is exported,” he told me.

Melamine-tainted cookies

The U.S. FDA has people already in Beijing. But their assignment was made permanent after disclosure that almost 300,000 children have been made painfully ill and in six cases killed by exposure to melamine-contaminated milk formula.

The chemical melamine is used in plastics and fertilizer, but was added to watery milk by unscrupulous bottlers because its shows up as protein during testing and adds to what is paid for the milk. Melamine has also been found in many products sold in the U.S. and Canada like cookies, chocolate, instant coffee, crackers and some baby formula.

Meanwhile, my friend says, health authorities are trying to track down reports this week that something in dog food is killing many animals.

“Start sickening children and pets and even the most lackadaisical government will take action,” added the physician, who was trained at UCLA and works in Hong Kong.

January 12, 2009

Labeling origin of food falters in loophole

Filed under: FDA,Food labeling,Government & corporate wrong-doing,USDA — Andrew Schneider @ 17:15

The USDA today announced details of the final regulations for the mandatory country of origin labeling (COOL) program. The long-awaited law which has been demanded by consumers and public interest groups concerned with food safety, was required in the 2002 and 2008 farm bills and becomes effective March 16.

The rule covers muscle cuts and ground beef, lamb, chicken, goat and pork; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; perishable agricultural commodities, specifically fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables; macadamia nuts; pecans; ginseng; peanuts and honey.

The regulations demand that items covered under COOL must be labeled before they reach store shelves to indicate precisely where the food came from. For fish and shellfish, the method of production — wild or farm-raised — must be specified.

But some food-safety experts insist that a massive loophole that will allow large quantities of food to go without labeling.

“Given the recent scandals about the safety of imported food, it is unacceptable that the rule was approved with an overly broad definition for which foods are ‘processed,'” says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, a national consumer organization.

The USDA definition exempts from labeling over 60 percent of pork, the majority of frozen vegetables, an estimated 95 percent of peanuts, pecans and macadamia nuts, and multi-ingredient fresh produce items, such as fruit salads and salad mixes.

“It is inexcusable to exempt so much food from this basic labeling requirement just because one ingredient has been added or because something has been roasted or cooked,” Hauter says.

The group says the outgoing Bush administration is using a trade challenge by Canada and Mexico as an excuse for weakening a domestic labeling program that is hugely popular with U.S. consumers and producers.

“Consumers have a right to know where their food comes from and USDA should be standing up for those rights, not caving in to pressure from our trading partners,” the director says, adding that he hopes that after Jan. 20, Congress and then-President Obama’s team will “work to undo the damage done by this last-minute rule from the Bush administration.”

Here is a link to USDA if you want to read the final rule and additional information.

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.”

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