by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Spinach

Mar 20 2011

Uh oh. Radioactive iodine in Japanese food

Japanese health authorities have found levels of radioactive iodine and cesium in spinach, milk, and water.  They detected levels of iodine-131 up to seven times higher than safety limits in spinach collected from six farms as far as 75 miles from the reactors.

How serious a problem is this?  From a strictly scientific viewpoint, probably not much.   But note the “probably.”  From the standpoint of the public, the problem is very serious indeed.

What’s happening with the Japanese food supply gets us into the classic contradictions of risk communication.  Consider this response:

After the announcements, Japanese officials immediately tried to calm an already-jittery public, saying the amounts detected were so small that people would have to consume unimaginable amounts to endanger their health.  “Can you imagine eating one kilogram of spinach every day for one year?” said State Secretary of Health Minister Yoko Komiyama. One kilogram is a little over two pounds.

Edano [chief cabinet secretary] said someone drinking the tainted milk for one year would consume as much radiation as in a CT scan; for the spinach, it would be one-fifth of a CT scan….Drinking one liter of water with the iodine at Thursday’s levels is the equivalent of receiving one-eighty-eighth of the radiation from a chest X-ray.

Is the Japanese public likely to be reassured by these statements?  They remind me of the British minister who went on TV and fed a hamburger to his small daughter during the mad cow crisis of the early 1990s.  It didn’t work.

We are talking about food here.  Something that people put in their bodies and those of their children.

Specialists in risk communication would view radioactive spinach as a problem ranking high on anyone’s “dread-and-outrage” scale.

Radioactivity is not visible, is not under personal control, and is technological, unfamiliar, and foreign.  This makes something like this really, really scary, as I explain in the introduction my book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety.

So the statements of American experts don’t help much either:

“The most troubling thing to me is the fear that’s out of proportion to the risk,” said Dr. Henry Duval Royal, a radiologist at Washington University Medical School.

Yes it is.  Understandably so.  And Japanese officials will have a hard time dealing with it unless they are thoroughly forthcoming with information, earn the trust of the public, and take the fears seriously.

Update, March 21: The New York Times account on this issue from March 20.  The March 21 story describes the spread of the radioactive materials:

Spinach from a farm in Hitachi, about 45 miles from the plant, contained 27 times the amount of iodine that is generally considered safe, while cesium levels were about four times higher than is deemed safe by Japan. Meanwhile, raw milk from a dairy farm in Iitate, about 18 miles from the plant, contained iodine levels that were 17 times higher than those considered safe, and milk had cesium levels that were slightly above amounts considered safe.

Jun 20 2009

How could E. coli O157:H7 get into cookie dough?

Thanks to Bill Marler for discussing this question on his blog this morning and for suggesting starting with the ingredient list.  As a typical example, here is the ingredient list for Nestlé’s Chocolate Chunk cookie dough (others can be found at this site):

INGREDIENTS: BLEACHED ENRICHED FLOUR (WHEAT FLOUR, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, THIAMIN MONONITRATE, RIBOFLAVIN, FOLIC ACID), SUGAR, NESTLE SEMI-SWEET CHOCOLATE CHUNKS (SEMI-SWEET CHOCOLATE [SUGAR, CHOCOLATE, COCOA BUTTER, MILKFAT, SOY LECITHIN, VANILLIN - AN ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, NATURAL FLAVOR]), MARGARINE (PALM OIL, WATER, SUNFLOWER OIL, HYDROGENATED COTTONSEED OIL, SALT, VEGETABLE MONO- AND DIGLYCERIDES, SOY LECITHIN, SODIUM BENZOATE, CITRIC ACID, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, BETA CAROTENE COLOR, VITAMIN A PALMITATE ADDED), WATER, CORN SYRUP SOLIDS, MOLASSES, EGGS, EGG YOLKS, BAKING SODA, SALT, CORNSTARCH, SODIUM ALUMINUM PHOSPHATE, VANILLA EXTRACT, VANILLIN – AN ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR

MADE ON EQUIPMENT THAT ALSO PROCESSES PEANUTS/NUTS

CONTAINS: MILK, EGG, SOY, WHEAT INGREDIENTS

For starters, we don’t really know yet whether raw cookie dough is the source of this E. coli outbreak.  It could be something else, and Nestlé will have recalled 300,000 cases purely out of precaution.  The most likely source of bacterial contamination is eggs, but eggs typically carry Salmonella, not E. coli O157:H7.   And besides, the eggs in raw cookie dough are undoubtedly pasteurized, which ought to kill any bacteria that happen to be present.

The usual source of this toxic form of E. coli is cow manure.  Cows that carry this bug do not necessarily become ill, but they excrete it. Recall the spinach E. coli outbreak in 2006?  The spinach field was one mile away from a cattle crossing over a stream.  California investigators identified the particular strain of E. coli that caused the problem in cattle, cattle feces, and water at the cattle crossing, but did not found it in the field.

All they could do is speculate. Their leading hypotheses were runoff, a change in the water table, and (my favorite) wild boar.  Unfortunately for this last theory, when they surveyed wild boar for E. coli O157:H7, they found fewer than 0.5% to carry it.  So how E. coli got into the spinach remains a mystery.

As for the cookie dough, I’m guessing that everyone involved is having a busy weekend testing the ingredients, the packing plants, and everything else they can think of.  Let’s hope they find the source right away.

Aug 21 2008

Goodie! Irradiated spinach!

The FDA has just sent me its latest Constituent Update. This one announces that the FDA has approved a petition from the Grocery Manufacturers Association on behalf of the Food Irradiation Coalition (guess what that is) to allow irradiation of fresh iceberg lettuce and spinach. Never mind insisting that producers and packers produce safe produce, let’s just zap it! The FDA is collecting comments on this dubious initiative, and it must know what to expect: “Electronic objections may be submitted to the Federal eRulemaking Portal at http://www.regulations.gov.”

If you do weigh in, be sure to refer to Docket No. FDA-1999-F-2405 (formerly 1999F-5522). The request for comment isn’t posted yet, but presumably will be soon at the Constituent Update site.

And here’s what the European food industry community has to say about this.