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 29, 2009

As money becomes tighter, organic food becomes expendable for many.

I’ve been hearing from organic food producers, especially dairy farmers, who say that after years of soaring growth and markets for all they can produce, the reality of dealing with rough economic times is painfully hitting home.

(c) photo by a. schneider
(c) photo by a. schneider

They say that sales they could always count on, are falling off.

But many shopper are more carefully weighing the presumed quality of organics with the cost.

“I want the best for my children but I know I can get this for half the price at the chain groceries. Four or five dollars make a difference these days,” said a woman I chatted with yesterday at Whole Foods who was holding a head of organic lettuce in one hand and tomatoes in the other.

I’m going to hit some farmer’s markets this weekend to talk to some producers but as one farmer told me recently, he’d spent so much money bringing his farm up to organic standards that even a drop of five or 10 percent in his sales can close him down.

If you want to read more on this, Katie Zezma wrote a really well-researched piece in today’s New York Times.  Here’s a link to it.

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 14, 2009

Pesticide is too dangerous for use in the U.S., but apparently it’s just fine to use in other countries.

Carbofuran, an extremely dangerous pesticide that will be banned in the U.S., can still be sold and used overseas.

This raises concerns among food safety experts that farm workers and their families in Latin America and Asia can continue being exposed to the neurotoxin, and it may still end up on food exported to this country.

FMC Corp., the manufacturer of the pesticide, told the Charleston (WV) Gazette’s top gun reporter Ken Ward that the ban imposed Monday by the EPA “won’t affect production of the pesticide at the Institute’s chemical plant because most of the product is shipped overseas.”

Food safety activists denounce what they call a double standard for safety.

“The continued export of a pesticide determined too hazardous to be used in the US (shows a) hideous disrespect for millions of people and the environment around the world,” Margaret Reeves, a senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network North America, told me today.

“There is simply no reason to continue its use and many reasons to ban its use altogether.”

photo-jsass

Senior Scientist Jen Sass

It was three years ago, after years of bickering among EPA pesticide experts, public health activists and the chemical manufacturers that the agency finally said publicly that the use of the pesticide must be ended.

EPA said it was beyond dispute that significant dietary, environmental and farm worker risks existed from exposure to carbofuran.

Dr. Jennifer Sass, chief scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that initial word from EPA was that although uses of the pesticide in the U.S. would be cancelled, it would still be allowed as a contaminant on imported coffee, sugarcane, rice and bananas.

This, Sass said, would have meant that the manufacturer could still sell carbofuran in other countries that grow these foods for U.S. markets, thus putting at much greater risk those foreign workers, their families and their environment.

But apparently the restrictions issued by EPA on Monday also slash the amount of carbofuran residue limits (tolerances) permitted on all food imports.
“EPA’s decision will prevent all food contamination, including imports,” Sass said on her well-read blog.

However, the company is not going to sit quietly and allow this to happen.

FMC Corporation strongly disagrees with the EPA’s announcement to revoke all U.S. food tolerances for carbofuran, and the company plans to file objections to the agency’s actions and seek an administrative hearing, said Dr. Michael Morelli, Director of Global Regulatory Affairs for the company, on FMC’s website.

“President Obama has committed EPA to regulate on the basis of sound science, and FMC is confident that a fair hearing based on sound scientific principles will prove carbofuran’s safety to the satisfaction of all,” Morelli said.

If you care about the technical language, here is a link to EPA’s cancellation notice.

February 11, 2009

A look at a real victim of the peanut butter poisoning

Members of Congress who repeatedly huff and puff over the treacherous deficiencies in the government’s protection of the nation’s food supply came face-to-face today with a 3-year-old boy who nearly died because his favorite snack was filled with salmonella-tainted peanut butter.

When Rep. Henry Waxman gaveled his House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing into action this morning, the parents of Jacob Hurley were there to describe how they came close to losing their son last month. And according to Waxman, it happened because of the apparent greed of the owners of Peanut Corp. of America and the Food and Drug Administration’s inadequate food-inspection system.

Waxman opened the hearing to a packed room by waving documents that he said showed that the Peanut Corp. of America was “a company that was more concerned with its bottom line than the safety of its customers.”

The California Democrat said the company was notified last September by a private lab that its products had tested positive for salmonella.

“In response, the president of the company, Stewart Parnell, sent an e-mail complaining that positive salmonella tests were ‘costing us huge $$$$$ and causing obviously a huge lapse in time from the time we pick up peanuts until the time we can invoice,’ ” Waxman saidf.

As the Seattle P-I reported today in its story on the “Peanut scandal’s weakest victims,” peanut and peanut products from the company, tainted with salmonella, have made at least 604 people sick, sent 187 to the hospital and killed eight.

Three-year-old Jacob was one of those sickened. His father, Peter, a veteran Portland, Ore., police officer, tells the committee that not only was his child brought down by the salmonella, but, because of FDA’s failure to order a mandatory recall of all products using the dangerous peanut butter from the Georgia plant, Jacob also continued to be fed his favorite snack crackers that contained the salmonella bacteria.

Seattle lawyer William Marler was asked to submit written comments to the committee. He had been involved in the aftermath of the 2007 poisoning of 400 people by Conagra’s Peter Pan Peanut Butter, which carried the same strain of salmonella as found in the Peanut Corp. of America products.

Marler told the committee what he had been urging for years: that the three main federal agencies responsible for food safety — the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the inspection arm of the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — be merged and adequately funded.

“The present system is trifurcated, which leads to turf wars and split responsibilities. We need one independent agency that deals with food-borne pathogens,” he wrote.

January 28, 2009

Prison for peanut execs who knew salmonella was present?

Filed under: FDA,Food poisoning,Food Safety,Risks to children — Andrew Schneider @ 16:53
The Chinese kill their food poisoners. What about the U.S. peanut butter execs who know salmonella was present 12 times.

Accidents happen, but the FDA has determined that the producer of the peanut butter that has sickened more than 500 people, hospitalized 127 and killed eight has a history of knowingly selling food contaminated with salmonella.

The FDA has identified approximately12 instances in the past two years when Peanut Corporation of America, in its own internal testing, identified some type of salmonella in the food and eventually released peanut butter for sale, said Michael Rogers, who heads FDA’s Division of Field Investigations in the Office of Regulatory Affairs.

Several of you have already reminded me that just last week, a Chinese court ordered the death of two men and a life sentence for a dairy executive for their roles in knowingly producing and selling milk poisoned with melamine. The tainted milk has killed at least six children and made almost 300,000 sick. The presence of the melamine, a chemical used in plastics, forced a world-wide recall of dairy and other products.

Fortunately, the numbers of unfortunates sickened in the U.S. was far, far lower, but, according to FDA’s Robert Tauxe, half of those brought down by the bad peanut butter are children.

Nevertheless, I can’t see the government demanding the death penalty for the gang at the Georgia peanut plant, but if they really knew it had salmonella and still sold it, that sounds criminal to me.

Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in Washington, says that if further investigation show the action of the peanut executives violated the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act …then that is technically a 
violation of the law.

FDA’s regulations have “the force of law,” Sundlof says. “Whether or not there was any criminal activity involved is a different issue. We’re looking.”

Meanwhile, the American Peanut Council tossed its Georgia member to the wolves, saying the trade group was shocked and dismayed at the findings that the company “knowingly released a product with potential salmonella contamination into the food supply.”

“The findings of the FDA report can only be seen as a clear and unconscionable action of one irresponsible manufacturer…,” Patrick Archer, peanut council present, said in a statement.

January 27, 2009

A 1,600 calorie dessert? Have two

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Food Safety,Risks to children — Andrew Schneider @ 14:02

<![CDATA[Sometimes frivolous topics can be serious.

Let’s talk about the “Food Porn Alert” issued today which either warns us off or entices us toward a Chocolate Chip Paradise Pie offered by Chili’s restaurant chain.

The “pie” is made from chocolate chips, walnuts and coconut with vanilla ice cream, hot fudge and caramel toppings piled on top.

The alert was issued today by Nutrition Action, a newsletter put out by the nonprofit nutrition watchdog, the Center for Science in the Public Interest

That dessert provides 1,590 calories, 37 grams of saturated fat (almost two days’ worth), and 910 milligrams of sodium, about half of what you should have in a day.

The health group says the dessert is equivalent to 1 full racks of Chili’s Original Baby Back Ribs.

CSPI’s senior nutritionist Jayne Hurley say this kind of food porn helps explain America’s epidemic of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. It also makes a compelling case why calorie counts belong right on the menus, not just buried on corporate web sites.”

Other recent “Food Porn” stars recognized by the group include Starbucks’ Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate, Sara Lee Cheesecake Bites, and DiGiorno’s Ultimate Focaccia Pizza.

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January 26, 2009

Widespread concealment of tainted imported honey

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Food poisoning,Food Safety,Risks to children — Andrew Schneider @ 16:40

<![CDATA[Yes, I wrote yet another story on honey laundering.

Given the multiple crises we face, the fact that money-grubbing business people here and in China are shipping and importing honey that’s erroneously labeled and may contain illegal antibiotics probably isn’t at the top of your must-do list for our new president.

I agree.

The banned drugs that the Chinese added to kill the epidemic that was decimating millions of their bee hives will only harm a very small number of the people who eat it. But many of the phone calls and e-mail I received today in reaction to the story, said it’s important if your child or loved one is among that small number who are sensitive to the animal medication.

In today’s story, I wrote about the National Honey Board and Sue Bee Associates, the nation’s largest honey seller, having knowledge of the presence of tainted honey and not seeing the need or value of telling federal health inspectors about it. In the case of the quasi-governmental honey board, its CEO was told about contaminated honey on grocery shelves and he said he didn’t notify health authorities because it wasn’t his job.

After today’s phone calls, I can add three companies who allegedly shipped bad honey back to their supplier with the knowledge that the loads would be resold to other U.S. honey packers.

Two of the people who supplied this information say that they felt that nothing would happen unless and until some really bad honey made it though our porous borders and lots of people either got sick or died.

I guess that’s why I write about honey and other potential hazards that are low on the government’s crisis list.

And to the gaggle of you who ask if I don’t have more important public health investigations to chase before the owners close this newspaper down in 40-something days, the answer is yes.

I crank out what I can, and I’ll keep doing it until they toss us all out.

For those who care, here’s a link to all the honey stories.

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January 19, 2009

New recalls as angry mom sues peanut butter maker

Update: Safeway and Kroger add to long list of recalled products that possibly contain salmonella-contaminated peanut butter, paste or cream. Here is a link to FDA’s latest list of recalls.

Christopher Meunier is still a sick child even though it has been seven weeks since he first became deathly ill.

His mom, Gabrielle, joined a suit filed today against the Peanut Corporation of America in the US District Court, Middle District of Georgia. The company is believed to be the source of Salmonella Typhimurium which has poisoned people throughout the country.

Yesterday, Christopher’s mother told me that it was the day before Thanksgiving when her 7-year-old began showing all the debilitating and degrading intestinal symptoms that accompany severe food poisoning.

Eventually, Christopher was identified as the first case of Salmonella Typhirium documented in Vermont and one of the earliest of the almost 500 people, from infant to age 98, sickened in the U.S. and Canada from eating salmonella-contaminated peanut butter.

Chris, before salmonella

The child was hospitalized for six long days.

Now, some of Gabrielle’s pain has morphed into anger at the lethargy of the government’s efforts to identify the contaminated food.

“The wheels of the investigation are turning way too slowly and inefficiently,” she told me in an email this morning.

She says it was just last week that she learned that peanut butter-containing crackers, cookies, candy and snacks could also carry the disease. But, she charges, the government knew it and didn’t effectively pass the word to consumers.

Initially the Food and Drug Administration had maintained that the potentially lethal peanut butter made by Georgia-based Peanut Corporation of American was only a danger to institutions that purchased the company’s five-pound jugs.

Gabrielle and others only learned that the company also supplied peanut butter and peanut cream to companies that produced scores of products filling store shelves and bakeries when some of the manufacturers announced they were voluntarily recalling their products.

To date, the FDA has ordered no recalls, even after national food safety experts, including Seattle lawyer and internet star Bill Marler, told the FDA that immediate action was needed.

Back in Vermont, Gabrielle says a box of Keebler “Cheese & Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers” is sitting on her kitchen counter  the same “crackers that my son had eaten before he got sick.”

“My son could have eaten these crackers again and potentially died. I have another son already weakened with a missing kidney and spleen. He could have died by eating these crackers,” said the frustrated mother.

She questions how the government can justify not screaming the warnings of the specific food products that could be dangerous in every newspaper, radio and television station.

She says she contacted the CDC, the FDA and Keebler about her partially eaten box of crackers.

“So here I sit with the crackers in my hot little hands and no one has stepped forward to test them,” Gabrielle says. “What a broken system.”

The Centers for Disease Control says that six people have died after eating the tainted peanut butter in one product or another. The federal health detectives say that they are investigating two deaths from Minnesota, two from Virginia, one from Idaho and one from North Carolina. And, they say, they are examining others that may or may not be related.

Obviously, there is more that the government could have and perhaps should have done. But tracking the culprits in nationwide food poisoning cases is rarely easy.

For example, The number of people sickened is expected to increase, if for no other reason then there is an inherent two to three week delay between the date that the salmonella illness starts, and the date that the case is reported to public health authorities.

What this means is that someone who consumed the tainted peanut butter today and becomes ill or dies, may not be identified as a victim for three more weeks.

Here is a link to more information from CDC.

January 18, 2009

Don’t eat peanut butter unless you make it yourself.

Seattle lawyer Bill Marler, the guru of the nation’s food safety investigators, is spitting mad about the way the Food and Drug Administration failed to take any definitive action when the first case of peanut-butter spawned salmonella surfaced in Minnesota in September.

“What in the hell are they thinking?” Marler told me today. “The FDA knew there was a problem on Labor Day and they wait for inaugural day to do anything.”

Marler says he just returned from Minnesota where the nationwide outbreak of 500 or so cases of illness and at least six deaths were first reported by Minnesota’s top notch health detectives.

I get real-time alerts and bulletins from the FDA and USDA whenever some food product is recognized as being dangerous or recalled. If you look at my Blackberry tonight, the streaming messages make it appear like a war has been declared by the federal food safety forces.

But, please don’t think for a moment that the FDA has actually ordered a recall of all products made from this peanut butter. Or anything else that might actually prevent new poisonings. Not so.

But voluntary recalls are streaming in from coast-to-coast.

Ralcorp Frozen Bakery Products Inc. announced it’s recalling all Wal-Mart Bakery brands of PEANUT BUTTER COOKIES, PEANUT BUTTER NO-BAKE COOKIES and PEANUT BUTTER FUDGE NO-BAKE COOKIES.

Food Lion cookie removed its Bake Shop peanut butter cookies from the shelves.

McKee Foods Corporation recalled two varieties of Little Debbie peanut butter sandwich crackers, which are sold in grocery and convenience stores throughout the country.

Perry’s Ice Cream Company recalled about 20 of its Select Peanut Butter Ice Cream products sold under the Perry’s, Surfine and Wegman’s brands.

Hy-Vee Inc. recalled almost a dozen products made in its bakery departments, including cookies containing Reese’s Pieces

What has angered Marler and others concerned about food safety is that the FDA knew weeks ago that Peanut Corp. of America in Blakely, Ga., � one of the nation’s largest producers of peanut butter and peanut cream � was the source of salmonella found in five-pound jars. FDA said the product was sold only to institutional clients � mass feeders like the military, nursing homes, jails and the like.

When I questioned an FDA investigator last week about why his agency wasn’t forcing the manufacturer to identify all its clients, he said the FDA prefers to use voluntary recalls and that’s just the way it is.

Later in the week, I told an FDA spokesperson that I had learned that the Georgia plant was shipping out peanut products in huge quantities, sometimes tanker-car loads. I asked if that wasn’t an indication that the potentially tainted peanut butter was likely to be used in other products being manufactured for sale.

The spokesperson said “Gee. I just don’t know.”

Perhaps that’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges people to throw away recalled items in a manner that prevents others from eating them, and, of equal importance, not to eat other peanut-butter containing products such as cookies, crackers, cereal, candy and ice cream until “more is know about the scope of the contamination.”

The FDA said tonight that the investigation is “very active and dynamic.”

And, no, I don’t know what that means, but I do know that CDC says the number of cases of salmonella in Washington State is now 13.

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