Thursday, June 26, 2008

Tainted tomatoes

The recent outbreak of salmonella-infected tomatoes has put more than 25 people in the hospital and sickened hundreds, but really it is just the latest in a long line of sickness and recalls. In just the last few years we've had salmonella in tomatoes, spinach, and lettuce, eColi in peanut butter, beef from downer cows. Whether it's because of staffing and budget cuts, factory and giant agribusiness farms or a combination - something is seriously wrong with our food growing and distribution system.

The CDC reports that food-borne illnesses increased more than tenfold between 1970 and 1999 and 76 million people have been infected annually. While the FDA simultaneously insists that our food supply is the "safest in the world", it daily struggles to handle fundamental food safety in the face of a crippling lack of resources. Two weeks ago salmonella-infected tomatoes quickly made their way to more than 16 states with documented outbreaks. Last week, with 28 states reporting cases, the magnitude of the problem became quickly evident: the FDA had failed us yet again.

This type of contamination is well understood and avoidable. Salmonella- and eColi-poisoned produce is created indirectly by our nation's "animal factories," where inhumane and overly crowded conditions produce tainted manure that can contaminate agricultural water sources and make its way to farm fields as fertilizer.

You can still eat tomatoes however - locally grown tomatoes can be a safe alternative. Go to the farmers market this weekend, talk to the farmer that grew the tomatoes and buy a few pounds without a worry in the world. Unlike the salmonella tomatoes which have been shipped all over the country and grown on large, industrial, mechanized farms, small-scale local farms are run by farmers who know their land, what they put in it, and what comes out of it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

testing for mad cow

Here's a press release I received today with a few comments from me at the end:

Consumers Union
Nonprofit Publisher of Consumer Reports

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Contact: Jennifer Fuson (202) 462-6262
June 10, 2008
USDA Opposition to Mad Cow Testing Is Anti-Consumer, Anti-Competitive;
Tests Could Resolve Korea Beef Trade Dispute

Washington, DC—Consumers Union calls on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reverse itself and allow a Kansas based meatpacking company, Creekstone Farms, to test their slaughtered cows for mad cow disease. Last year, Creekstone won its suit against the agency for the right to test and label its meat as “tested for BSE”. USDA appealed the ruling, arguing the same rapid test kits used by the agency to screen for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow, are “worthless” when used by a private company. The U.S. Court of Appeals is expected to rule shortly.

“The best thing USDA could do would be to drop its anticompetitive, anti-consumer ban on voluntarily testing for mad cow disease and also allow meat from tested animals to be labeled as ‘tested for BSE’ so that consumers have a choice and free markets can function,” said Michael Hansen, Senior Scientist at Consumers Union. “It is hurting our trade with other countries and consumer confidence in our beef supply at home,” added Hansen.

Currently, the USDA tests only a tenth of a percent of all slaughtered or dead American beef cattle, while Japan tests every cow put into the food system. This discrepancy led to a protracted trade dispute with Japan.

South Korea currently bans all U.S. beef, and tens of thousands of people demonstrated Tuesday against lifting import restrictions there. Creekstone Farms had built a lab to screen all their slaughtered beef using the same tests used by USDA, in order to compete in the overseas beef market. USDA prohibited the testing, calling it “worthless”.

The “rapid test” kits used by USDA to detect mad cow are not infallible, but according to Consumers Union are not “worthless,” as the agency argued in their appeal of the lower Court ruling. These tests can miss a case of mad cow disease if it is in an early stage of incubation, but they can catch the disease in later stages, before the animal is showing symptoms. In fact, the European Union uses the same test on healthy-appearing cattle and turned up over 1,100 cases of BSE between 2001 and 2006, preventing over a thousand infected cattle from reaching European supermarkets.

In late April, Korean President Lee Myung-bak announced that he had made a deal to open up the Korean market to U.S. beef, triggering massive street demonstrations. Candlelight vigils have been held daily for over a month, and major demonstrations have been held in Seoul against importing U.S. beef since last Friday.

“USDA should not wait for the Court's decision, but rather should drop their appeal and allow the sale and use of USDA-validated rapid test kits for the detection of mad cow disease,” added Hansen, who has done extensive media in South Korea on U.S. beef testing and mad cow disease. “If U.S. companies were allowed to test for BSE, then these heavy export restrictions would probably decline or disappear. Indeed, the reason that Creekstone brought the case against USDA was to regain lost income from exports to South Korea and Japan,” said Hansen. “A reevaluation of our beef testing policy is essential to remain competitive in the world beef market and ensure the safety of consumers both home and abroad.”

For more information on USDA’s position on mad cow and developments in Creekstone’s court battle see .

My comment:

Many people think the USDA was formed to protect the consumer when in reality, it was created to promote agriculture products - and this is another example of putting the consumer last. Is it really necessary to prevent a farmer from guaranteeing a safe product to its customers. Just like with the GE labeling, Bovine Growth Hormone, everyone's afraid that having someone provide a guaranteed safe product - consumers will no longer buy the ones that might potenially not be safe. Why don't they spend their time and energy providing safe food for everybody.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Food Dyes

The FDA is being asked to ban eight common food dyes because several studies suggest they cause behavior problems in kids. See this CBS News Video:

FDA and manufacturers say food dyes are safe - however, they are removing them in foods sold overseas. Kraft is already getting rid of some of the controversial dyes in Great Britain, where regulators are pressuring the entire food industry to switch to safer natural colorings. But in the United States, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Jell-O, Lunchables, and countless other products still use Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40, and these other petrochemical-based food dyes. If they can do it for Europe, they can do it for us. If you want to take action, call Kraft at 847-646-2000 and urge them to switch to safer, natural colorings.

According to Trader Joes, none of their products have the dyes.