Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jan 31 2009

San Francisco Chronicle: what’s up with vitamin D?

My latest column for the San Francisco Chronicle tackles today’s vexing questions about vitamin D.  How much do we need? How much is safe? How much of the fuss about it is due to marketing hype? No easy answers on this one, alas.

Jan 30 2009

Food scoring-and-ranking systems: thoughts

Food Production Daily, a food industry website from the U.K., has some  interesting things to say about food scoring and ranking systems, and especially about how their proliferation is so confusing to the public.  There are so many now, that nobody can keep them straight.  My sentiments exactly.

July 24 update: Fortunately, the website, fooducate.com, keeps track of them.  This is a great place to get started!

Jan 29 2009

Latest chapter in peanut butter saga

The CDC reports more than 500 cases and 8 deaths from Salmonella typimurium in peanut butter produced at a single plant in Georgia owned by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).

Fortunately, the number of reported cases is going down.FDA officials reveal that the PCA plant has a history of knowingly shipping peanut butter contaminated with Salmonella. But these incidents did not involve the same strain.

The peanut industry says this is one bad peanut and everyone else’s peanuts are OK.

I say (again and again): Peanuts are not kcovered by standard food safety regulations (voluntary Good Manufacturing Practices demonstrably do not work).  We need HACCP food safety regulations – with Pathogen Reduction –  for all foods, from farm to table.

January 30 update: Apparently, the New York Times editorial staff agrees with me!  And no wonder, given what their reporters are saying about ithis incident.

Jan 28 2009

More on Bisphenol A

How serious a problem is Bisphenol A, the hormone-like substance that leaches from some plastic water bottles?  The answer: how would we know?  According to investigative reporter, David Case, most of the studies of bisphenol A toxicity are sponsored by corporations that spin the results.  Take a look at his most interesting January 14 report, The real story behind bisphenol A.

In theory, whoever is paying for a study should not matter.  In practice, the sponsor matters a lot.  It’s not that scientific investigators are corrupt; most aren’t.  But sponsorship – perhaps unconsciously – influences the design of studies as well as their interpretation.   According to Case, the bisphenol A studies are a good example of this phenomenon.  You can find other examples filed under Sponsorship.

Jan 27 2009

Mercury in high fructose corn syrup

Never a dull moment.  The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a think-tank in Minneapolis, tested brand-name foods made with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and found about half of them to contain mercury.  HFCS, it seems, is made by a process that involves lye, which in turn is made in chlorine – alkali plants by a method that uses mercury. Mercury is a neurotoxin, although not as bad a toxin as methymercury, the kind that accumulates in large, predatory fish. A scientific report published in Environmental Health says the amounts of mercury in HFCS ranged from 0.00 to 0.57 micrograms per gram. The IATP’s bottom line: the process for making HFCS should be changed to one that does not introduce mercury.

This seems like quite sensible advice, but how worried should we be about mercury in HFCS? I agree that mercury in any form is unlikely to be good, but I have no idea whether such low levels do measurable harm.  For one thing, these studies did not compare the amounts of mercury found in HFCS to those typically found in foods that do not contain HFCS.  My guess is that most foods contain low levels of mercury because mercury is prevalent in air, water, and soil, especially around coal-burning power plants.  Also, soft drinks are the major sources of HFCS in American diets, but these were found to be relatively free of mercury.  This is puzzling.

If anything, these studies are a call for more research on heavy metal toxicology.  In the meantime, let’s lobby for changing this process for making HFCS, but even more so for cleaning up coal-burning power plants that supply 40% of mercury in our environment.

Update January 28: Food Production Daily has a good report on this, with quotes from the Corn Refiners.

Jan 27 2009

Which peanut butter products are OK?

I wondered how the Peanut trade groups were dealing with this situation.  The American Peanut Council posts lists of products that are not affected by the recalls–at least not yet.

Jan 26 2009

Peanut butter and pet foods

One more thing about the peanut butter recalls; they affect pet foods.  I can’t help saying it, but I did say that pet foods matter (and thanks to OrangeCloud for reminding me).  One of the points of Pet Food Politics was to demonstrate that the food supplies for pets, farm animals, and people are one and the same and cannot be separated.  If a safety problem affects pet foods, you can be sure that the same kind of problem will affect people food.  Examples: melamine in Chinese infant formula, and now peanut butter.

Lots of pet foods, especially treats, contain peanut butter and guess where that peanut butter comes from?  It comes from the same plant in Georgia that sends peanut butter everywhere else. Here are the recalled pet foods, so far:

Avanza Supermarket
Econofoods (Excluding Wisconsin stores in Sturgeon Bay, Clintonville, Marquette, Holton and Iron Mou
Family Fresh Market
Family Thrift Center
Food Bonanza
Grreat Choice
Pick’n Save (Ohio stores in Van Wert and Ironton only)
Prairie Market
SunMart Foods
Wholesale Food Outlet

Recalled pet food ingredients: Peanut Corporation of America or Parnell’s Pride

Jan 25 2009

Update on the peanut butter recalls

I was interviewed for 5 seconds on ABC News last night about the peanut butter recalls (look for Saturday, January 25, “Salmonella outbreak worsens”).  So far, nearly 500 people have become ill and there may be as many as 11 deaths.  ABC reporters were right on top of what’s happening, mainly because they participated in the FDA’s teleconference on January 21.  The transcripts of these sessions make interesting reading.  Here’s the take-home:

1.  How did Salmonella get into the peanut butter? They don’t know yet, and it’s a puzzle.  Investigators found traces of Salmonella in the plant, but  not the particular strain found in the peanut butter.

2.  Shouldn’t peanut butter be free of bacteria? Yes, in theory, because the peanuts are roasted (this should be a kill step) and bacteria do not grow well in foods that don’t have much water.  This plant roasted its own peanuts, but it also used peanuts that arrived already roasted.  These could have arrived contaminated or the contamination could have occurred at the plant.

3.  Why are so many products affected? The plant shipped two different kinds of peanut butter: the bulk kind that goes to institutions and a peanut butter ingredient that goes to factories to be turned into other products.  Both contained the particular toxic strain of Salmonella.

4.  Which products  have been found with this toxic strain? The bulk kind and Austin Sandwich Crackers made by Kellogg.  But give Kellogg credit for admirable behavior.  The company recalled its products the minute it heard about the potential problem.  By the time the FDA’s tests came back positive, Kellogg had already recalled the products.  The Kellogg website provides full disclosure.

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