The peanut butter story gets more sordid by the minute. Peanut Corporation of America, owner of the Georgia plant that shipped peanut butter laced with Salmonella, has gone belly up. By filing for bankruptcy, it gets to avoid claims and class action suits related to the illnesses and deaths caused by the tainted peanut butter. Check out what Consumers Union has to say about this ploy.
I had never heard of OMP (osteoblast milk product or protein) until this morning when a reporter from the Associated Press in Beijing sent me an e-mail about it. A milk company in China, it seems, is adding OMP to its milk and the Chinese food safety agency is investigating. The companies say OMP is safe and FDA-approved.
It didn’t take long to find out what this is about. Japanese investigators isolated a protein, kininogen, from milk and demonstrated in laboratory experiments that it promotes bone growth. These and other experiments in rats and people also show that it stimulates bone formation (I haven’t read them so I can’t comment on their quality).
FDA approved? Not exactly. In response to a petition from a company called Snow Foods, the FDA agreed that the use of milk proteins as additives to dairy foods is GRAS (generally recognized as safe) for human consumption. But its “approval” letter assumes that the proteins are mainly lactoferrin and lactoperoxidase, which are pretty well known to be safe. The FDA’s letter says nothing about the use of kininogen as a bone-promoting agent.
I can see why the Chinese government is concerned. It is one thing to demonstrate the effects of a protein in experiments, and quite another to add that protein to a food likely to be consumed by children. The protein is already in milk and there is no evidence that adding more of it will make any difference to bone growth. Without further studies to make sure that adding this protein does no harm, putting it into milk seems like a bad idea.
This seems like more about marketing than health, and it sounds like it is part of the huge current effort to sell more milk to the Chinese people. I am bewildered by the pressure on the Chinese population to drink more milk and eat more milk products. Aren’t most Chinese sensitive to undigested lactose? None of this makes any sense to me. Milk is not an essential nutrient or food and the Chinese have done fine for millennia without it.
I will be watching the unfolding of this story with much interest. Stay tuned.
Thanks to everyone who sent me this link to this interesting way to interpret those Obama-like Pepsi ads.
The New York Times today has a long investigative report on its front page about the implications of the peanut butter recalls for food safety in America. It’s a terrific article and it’s wonderful that the Times has at last discovered that the U.S. food safety system is deeply dysfunctional, something the Government Accountability Office has been screaming about for years.
In the meantime, the list of company recalls keeps getting longer (the FDA website identifies them with a bright red NEW! Safe Tables Our Priority, a group devoted to protecting children from unsafe food, publishes a daily list of individually recalled peanut butter products. Today’s collection alone numbers nearly 40 and is well worth a look. So are the CDC’s cute reminders to throw out your recalled products.
And I can’t resist adding a comment on peanut politics. The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Integrity in Science Watch sends out daily feeds. Today’s (not yet posted) refers to a story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution revealing that the USDA, not the FDA, is responsible for the safety of exported peanuts (they might contain aflatoxin), that its Peanut Standards Board was exempted from conflict -of-interest rules by the 2002 Farm Bill, and that the head of Peanut Corporation of America, the company responsible for the tainted peanut butter, was appointed in October as a member of that Board until 2011.
What more evidence do we need that an overhaul of the food safety system is very much in order. Congress: this is your problem to solve! Citizens: write your congressional representatives!
The courts have finally approved the settlement agreement for the class action lawsuit against pet food makers selling products contaminated with melamine. This means that the payouts will begin sometime this year, maybe. Legal wheels grind slowly, it seems (or maybe this isn’t slow?).
To what no doubt was great shock to the Department of Agriculture, the number of small farms in America went up from 2002 to 2007. This is great news for local, sustainable agriculture and let’s hope for lots more of the same. But most of these farms are not yet self-supporting, and their owners have day (or night) jobs to stay afloat. According to Andrew Martin in today’s New York Times, 40% of U.S. farms (900,000 of 2.2 million) earn less than $2,500 a year in sales. Agribusiness predominates: 5% of farms (125,000) account for 75% of production. But what a great sign this is of good things to come. Let’s hope the USDA wises up and puts some support behind this welcome trend.
All this comes from the USDA’s 2007 Census on Agriculture. Check out the nifty slide show link on that page for a quick overview of the facts and figures.
Update February 10: Here’s Verlyn Klinkenborg’s New York Times editorial on the topic. He points out that as new small farms (9 acres or less) come into existence, medium-size farms are the ones to get engulfed and devoured by agribusiness. The new diversity in crops and farmers “is a genuine source of hope for American agriculture.”
On Friday (of course), the FDA approved the first genetically modified goats. These have been bioengineered with a human gene that makes the anti-clotting protein, antithrombin. The goats excrete this protein into their milk (I hope their babies aren’t drinking this milk). Antithrombin ordinarily has to be extracted from human plasma, an unreliable source. This way, if more antithrombin is needed, the company that invented this scheme (GTC Biotherapeutics) just milks more goats. The FDA had previously approved doing things like this in theory, but this is the first practical application. Some antithrombin with your goat cheese, anyone?