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 21, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 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.

March 18, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Country-of-origin labeling is not new.

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

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

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January 23, 2009

Pigs have MRSA but feds can’t say if pork is safe.

Filed under: FDA,Food Safety,Government & corporate wrong-doing,MRSA,USDA — Andrew Schneider @ 17:47

<![CDATA[It’s official now. Many of the pigs and the farmers who raise them in Iowa and Illinois have MRSA.

It was just about six months ago that I reported on preliminary research done by Dr. Tara Smith, a significantly dedicated epidemiologist who found that pigs at several different Midwest farms had MRSA, as did many of the farmers raising them.

The reaction to her study and my earlier blog item which broke the news – was enormous. She was swamped with calls and I got hundreds of email from here and abroad. Many came from public health workers mostly government praising the efforts of her’ and her team at the University of Iowa’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Many of those health professionals, especially several connected with FDA, USDA and CDC, were passionate in their anger that the government was not taking the presence of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in our food supply anywhere near seriously enough.


Little porker about to be swabbed for MRSA. Photo T. Smith

Some members of Congress expressed outrage and demanded that the federal health agencies determine whether Smith’s findings in pigs also meant that pork in our grocery and butcher shop coolers also carried the sometimes lethal bacteria.

So today, Smith’s final study was published on PLoS ONE, an online journal for peer-reviewed scientific and medical research.
It said that Smith and her five students tested 446 pigs and 29 workers from pig farms in Iowa and Illinois and found MRSA in 45 percent of the animals and in 45 percent of the humans caring for them.

So I called some disease detectives and food safety specialists in agencies responsible for ensuring that our food supply is safe. You could almost hear them cringe over the phone. And, no, to the best of their knowledge, neither the FDA, USDA nor CDC had launched systematic testing of the U.S. meat supply for MRSA. One physician said that a study was being done on the MRSA strain (ST398) that Smith had found on the pigs but added, “I don’t think it has anything to do with meat.”

They did mention that some testing but far from enough – was being done by the academic community and gave me the names of researchers at Louisiana State University and the University of Minnesota. I’ll try to chase them down over the weekend.

Next I called staff members of some of the same congressional committees that were so upset and promised action last June when Smith’s initial results were released. Two senior people said almost the identical thing “We’ll get to it when we get the economy under control.” A lawyer on the third committee said she was embarrassed that nothing had happen, but would “contact Dr. Smith soon.”

OK. We’ll see.

Smith said her group has a number of ongoing projects examining MRSA in food and in rural communities, including examining the presence of MRSA on both conventional and organic farms.

The feds have a large role to play, she says.

“The studies should be expanded nationwide to examine hundreds of farms in Iowa and other swine-farming states and see how common MRSA is on a national level.”

But she agrees with many others that a national survey of meat products should be conducted and other animals like beef, poultry, lamb and goat should also be checked out for MRSA.

Smith added that her study just reinforces the importance of vigilance in food handling and cooking procedures.

“It’s likely that cooking will kill any MRSA present on the surface of meats, but anyone handling raw meats should be careful about cross-contamination of cooking areas or other food products, and should make sure hands are washed before touching one’s face, nose, lips, etc.,” the scientists said.

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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.

August 29, 2008

Your food came from where?

Filed under: FDA,Food additives,Food labeling,Food Safety,Random observations,USDA — Andrew Schneider @ 17:59

Do you care where your food came from?

Wouldn’t you like to know if the ground meat you’ve purchased came from a Middle Eastern country where camels out number cattle 500 to 1?

How about those dried banana chips from someplace in the center of Washington state or coffee beans from Canada?

And can anyone really know exactly which farm, in which country, the tomatoes came from?

I’m not sure that even the youngest among us will live long enough to actually see “country of origin labeling” on all food sold at U.S. markets.

Regardless of how much science-supported raving comes from food safety advocates and the few members of Congress who understand the potential for disaster from uninspected food flowing through our porous borders, the lobbyi$ts for the huge grocery chains and enormous food importers will most likely continue to keep meaningful labeling at bay. Thus, the consumer will still get the truth about a food’s origin from honest outlets who care and anything that sells from those firms sleazy who don’t.

But progress in COOL is inching along.

In July, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service issued an interim final rule addressing country of origin labeling that covers most cuts of beef, including veal, lamb, chicken, goat and pork and ground beef, ground lamb, ground chicken, ground goat and ground pork; perishable agricultural commodities such as fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables; peanuts; pecans, ginseng and macadamia nuts.

Food Safety and Inspection says the final rule will become effective on Sept. 30, 2008, to allow time for covered unlabeled commodities that are already in the pipeline to clear the system.

However, there is a very long list of products excluded from mandatory COOL, such as meatloaf, breaded chicken tenders or sausage, and you really don’t even what to guess as to how much meatloaf and how many meatballs we import.

Yea, this is progress. If you want to see how far we have to go, check out this FSIS link
to more than you probably want to know about Country of Origin Labeling.

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