Archive for the ‘Food safety’ Category

Food Safety Issues: America in 2014

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Having written recently about China's food problems, I knew there were some remaining in the Untied States, but their scope amazed me. Each year forty-eight million of us suffer from food poisoning. Over 125,000 of that group are ill enough to be hospitalized and 3,000 die.

Having seen those numbers on a government website, I decided to review the modern timeline of food-related illness in America and how our laws help prevent it.

One step in meat processing

One step in meat processing

My initial thought was of Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel, The Junglea powerful expose' of the American meat-packing industry. After its publication, public outcry led President Theodore Roosevelt to appoint a special commission to verify Sinclair's tale of the horrors of meat production in Chicago and elsewhere, and eventually led to the meat Inspection Act of 1906 and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

For many years a so-called "Poke and Sniff" system prevailed. The 1907 law said federal employees could inspect and approve (or disapprove) any animal carcasses which were to be sold across state lines. The inspectors could physically monitor the slaughter line, touching and smelling the animals and cuts of meat. They could remove any meat that was rotten, damaged or had abrasions or growths. Some felt that provided only minimal protection for the public, but that's what we had for over eighty years.

I grew up in Wisconsin in the 40s and 50s. My father, in addition to his medical practice, was the local Public Health Officer and I remember going to inspect local area dairy herds with his sanitarian when I was a teenager. I don't recall major food safety issues surfacing in those decades., although there may have been some isolated cases that I didn't pay attention to.

I was in medical school from 1962 to 1966. During that time, two women died in Michigan from botulism, a rare but extremely serious paralytic disease caused by a toxin produced by a bacteria. In their case the toxin was in canned tuna fish. There were other botulism outbreaks in 1971, 1977, 1978 and 1983 with 59 people being affected in the largest such episode. All were related to food being improperly canned or prepared.

In 1985 a huge outbreak of another form of food poisoning happened. This one involved at least 16,284 people (and perhaps up to 200,000) in six different states and was caused by bacterial contamination of milk.

Some new laws only applied to a few food items.

Some new laws only applied to a few food items.

The Department of Agriculture's food safety and inspection timeline appears to skip over a considerable period of time, although a number of laws were passed to strengthen federal regulation of the food chain. The 1957 Poultry Products Inspection Act and the 1970 Egg Products Inspection Act added to the government's ability to prevent food-related illness in specific areas, but wouldn't have prevented the major food-related episodes I just mentioned.

Then in late 1992 and early 1993 an E. coli outbreak sickened 623 and killed 4 children in four western states (Washington, Idaho, Nevada and California). It was eventually traced to contamination of under-cooked Jack in the Box hamburgers with that common bowel bacterium. Those affected developed bloody diarrhea and, in a few cases, severe kidney disease from an entity termed hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS). This is a disease which is the most common cause of acute kidney failure in children and usually occurs when an infection in the digestive system produces toxic substances that destroy red blood cells, causing severe kidney injury. The CDC traced the meat back to five slaughter plants in the United States and one in Canada.

In 1998 the USDA introduced a brand-new method for inspecting meat. The "Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system had been pioneered by NASA. That agency had protected our astronauts by adopting a system of critical control points, anywhere a germ, invisible to the naked eye, could find its way into a food meant for a space mission.

Pinging off the NASA approach, the USDA also mandated inspectors could order meat plants to do microbial testing. The meat industry became responsible for establishing and submitting their own HACCP plans. Then USDA would review the plan, approve it if it seemed appropriate and inspectors could monitor the plans' compliance with their own safety plans. The problem is the age-old one of the fox guarding the hen-house; inspectors no longer had the power to physically examine the meat on the line. The acronym HACCP was often derided as "Have a cup of coffee and pray."

On January 10th, 2014 two articles were published that changed my mind: the first, in's website simply said, "U.S. food Safety a big issue in 2014." It mentioned that already in 2014 the U.S. Department of Agriculture had shut down a meat-processing facility in the state of Minnesota.

The other online article was written by Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, the Commissioner of Food and Drugs, i.e., the head of the FDA. It discusses the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed by President Obama in early January, 2011. It was a reaction to the figures I mentioned at the start of this article.

This law gave the FDA "a legislative mandate to require comprehensive, science-based preventive controls across the food supply."

But let's look at its provisions, some of which make eminent sense and others, in my opinion, ask for the impossible.

On the one hand the FSMA required food facilities to have a written preventive control plan. I agree with that idea, but note it's a complex process with multiple steps involved. Such a plan includes evaluation of possible hazards, figuring out what one has to do to marked alleviate or totally eliminate them, noting how you will monitor these control measures (and keep appropriate records) and specifying what you will do when issues arise. Oh, and by the way, you had a year and a half to do all that.

Other parts of the FSMA involved standards for safely producing and harvesting vegetables and fruits plus another set involving the prevention of "intentional contamination" of food. The latter may be quite difficult. As the law is written, 600 such foreign food facilities must be inspected in its first year with the number doubling for each of five additional years. let's see, that's 600, 1,200, 2,400, 4,800, 9,600 and 19,200. Where in the world would the FDA get enough trained inspectors? And that's assuming that the foreign countries would allow such detailed examinations of their food-producing and exporting businesses.

One of every six Americans becomes ill from food-bourne disease each year. Only a small fraction of  them (approximately 1/4th of 1%) need to be hospitalized and even of those who do only 2.3% die. But another way of looking at those mortality statistics is to say it's equivalent to almost 10% of the number who die from motor vehicle accidents each year in this country.



Arsenic toxicity: Part Two: What is in your baby's food?

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Better check how it's sweetened

As I mentioned in my previous post, I read the American Medical Association's recent email piece titled "Study finds high levels of arsenic in some baby formulas, cereal bars" and got interested in the topic. The issue is the use of organic brown rice syrup which is used instead of high fructose corn syrup to sweeten some organic food products, baby food especially.

I found an article in Environmental Health Perspectives titled "Food Safety: U.S. Rice Serves Up Arsenic." The background was that of arsenic-based pesticides being used for years to kill off boll weevils in the southern cotton fields. That has ceased, but apparently arsenic stays around a long time and those same fields are now being used to raise rice. An extensive study by researchers from Scotland on the results was reported in 2007 in Environmental Science & Technology.

They bought rice samples at supermarkets and ran detailed chemical tests on them, looking at arsenic levels and those of other elements found in tiny amounts (these are called "trace elements"). In all they purchased 134 samples with 80% of those from the South Central states and 20% from California. That's about the percentages of where rice is grown in this country; almost 50% is from Arkansas. They bought many varieties of rice

The reason they tested for those other elements was to be relatively sure of where the rice was actually being grown. We sometimes purchase basmati rice from India at an Asian market nearby and can get rice from other countries at any of our supermarkets, but the researchers wanted to know if the rice they bought in Californai came from there and ditto for those samples they got at food stores in Arkansas. The background composition of the soil in different places varies, as you'd expect, so checking for the other elements could solve the issue of where the rice came from.

And where does this rice come from?

The findings were striking. Rice grown in the South Central states, on average, had more arsenic, a lot more. The standard for drinking water in the US is now 10 parts per billion. That's tiny but for other cancer-causing materials the EPA assumes there's no safe level at all and sets  limits that could result in anywhere from one in 10,000 to 1 in a million people exposed getting a cancer.

The current water standard for arsenic, at least according to Consumer Reports, gives an excess cancer risk of one in 500. That's calculated on drinking a liter a day. The state of New Jersey set their water standard at 5 parts per billion. But there is no EPA standard for rice or other foods, at least not for arsenic.

And the average for rice grown in the south central areas was close to 30 parts per billion, while California rice ran around 16.

And who eats more rice?

Hispanics, Asian-Americans, many who are gluten sensitive and, most worrisomely, our babies and toddlers in the form of brown rice syrup.


Arsenic Toxicity: Part One, history & worldwide impact

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

It looks harmless here

I started to write a post on arsenic in baby food since there's been a spate of recent articles on this issue appearing both in newspapers and online (the AMA Morning Rounds email I receive started me thinking of the subject). But, as usual, when I began to pursue a topic, I found there was both a long history I needed to cover and, in this case, a worldwide problem that should be discussed.

Human industrial use of arsenic dates back 5,000 years. I found the Harvard Arsenic Project has a thorough coverage of varying aspects of our utilization of this element, both beneficial and detrimental. It has been used as a poison for many centuries since it has little if any odor or taste, especially when mixed with food or wine. A Roman leader named Sulla outlawed arsenic poisoning in 82 B.C., to no avail. In Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Borgias, especially Pope Alexander VI and his son, Cesare were said to have killed scores of bishops and cardinals by liberally lacing their wine with arsenic; then, by Church laws, they owned the property of their victims.

Roger Smith, a Dartmouth Medical School Emeritus Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology has published an online discussion of the uses of the element with the gripping title, "Arsenic: A Murderous History."

Scientifically it is classed as a "heavy metal." Nowadays we think of that term as referring to a form of music. But from the chemistry pound of view it actually is one of a group of elements that, volume for volume, are at least five times as heavy as water. Iron, lead and mercury are in that group, but so is arsenic.

If you were to ingest arsenic, diluted in wine or water, at an incredibly small level, 60 parts per million, you would develop belly pain, nausea, diarrhea and then die. Until a few years ago the US drinking water limit was 50 parts per billion. Then in 2000 the EPA proposed all 54,000 community water systems in this country should cut their arsenic levels to no more than 10 parts per billion.

but it's a a plague here

Our local water lab just told me our Fort Collins levels are less than 1 part per billion. That's clearly not true elsewhere in the world. Over 137 million people in 70 countries are exposed to toxic levels in their drinking water. Bangladesh has the most well-known problem. When more than eight million deeper wells were dug in the 1970s and beyond, as an attempt to lower the infant death rate from ineffective water purification, arsenic  replaced infectious diseases as a major threat. The drinking water for more than 30 million people had levels over 50 parts per billion.

So they potentially could develop chronic arsenic effects include skin, lung, kidney, liver or bladder cancers and perhaps a variety of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

We've a long, long ways to go before we solve the issues raised by arsenic.



What sweetener do you use: Part 6; the fake sugars

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

Nearly a month ago I started to write a post on the "Fake sugars," I had read an article on them in the Personal Journal section of The Wall Street Journal, but got distracted when I realized I needed to think about (and write about) table sugar and high fructose corn syrup.

they're all sweeter than sugar

So now I'm finally going to start on the artificial sweeteners. There are four major ones that WSJ reviewed (they even had a panel of tasters): Sweet'N Low, Equal, Splenda and Truvia. They came on the market, respectively, in the 1970s, 1980s, 2000 and 2008. All have zero calories per packet, whereas table sugar has 15 or 16, depending on who you read, per teaspoon. They cost much more than sugar and are considerably sweeter. A Mayo Clinic article online reviews the general subject and terms these chemicals as intense sweeteners.

The National Cancer Institute mentions that they are regulated by the FDA and, in an August 2009 online paper, states there is "no clear evidence that the artificial sweeteners available commercially in the United States are associated with cancer risk in humans."

The most recent addition to this mix, called Truvia when it's made by Coca-Cola and Cargill, or PureVia when it's parents are PepsiCo and Merisant, comes from a plant called Stevia, found in South America. Stevia has a curious history in the United States; it was added to teas by Hain Celestial until the FDA got an anonymous letter questioning its safety in late 2007. At  that point the FDA banned its use in foods, but in 2009, faced with major industry interest, Stevia by-products were approved as food additives (but not Stevia itself).

Stevia, saccharin and the real sugar

Now Truvia and PureVia are being used in a wide range of processed food and beverages. A cousin to the chemical they contain has been extensively used in Japan for over twenty years without major side effects being noted and Stevia, the parent plant, has not only been used for centuries in South America, but also touted for its supposed health benefits.

So why do I have some lingering doubts, in fact some major concerns about all of these chemical food additives, not excluding Truvia and PureVia?

As best I can tell the vast majority of the research on them has been sponsored by the same companies that profit from them. I fail to see independent, carefully performed, double-blind controlled studies especially on the "new two." Some research has been done on their chemical components, including one four-month study on type 2 diabetics that did not show either high blood pressure or high blood sugar as a result of consuming the active agent in Truvia.

But it's not just diabetics who are being exposed to the chemicals in these sweeteners. Most of us are, if we consume a diet drink or anything labeled "light." And medical history informs us that untoward effects may show up in relatively small number (or perhaps even large numbers), years later.

So I'm going to avoid "fake sugars" whenever I can. And perhaps, just perhaps, someday I'll find out I was being smart in doing so.


The Five-Second Rule revisited

Friday, October 21st, 2011

don't wind up here, or worse

When I was a kid, we often used the Five-Second Rule, that meant food falling on a relative clean surface could be eaten if it was picked up in less than that amount of time. In recent years I've heard jokes about this rule: when parents have their first child, they use five seconds as a safe time, with the second, it's ten seconds and with later children, it's wipe off the mud and let them eat whatever dropped.

I received the November issue of the Center for Science in the Public Interest's Nutrition Action Healthletter several days ago  and noticed this month's focus was "Safe at Home: How to keep your kitchen from making you sick." I haven't had time to read much of the issue, but leafed through it and saw a brief blurb titled "Ignore the five-second rule."

So today I re-read that section, then went online and found the original article in the Journal of Applied Microbiology and Googled the lead author. Dr. Paul Dawson is a Professor of Food Science at Clemson, got his PhD at North Carolina State University, then did a two-year post-doctoral fellowship. Since joining the Clemson faculty he's published over 80 research manuscripts.

He was on a CNN TV show in 2010 discussing the 5-second rule, double-dipping (chips into a cheese or salsa dip) and, most recently was working on a project on the bacteriologic safety of blowing out birthday candles (See link below).

I read the online 2006 version of the original article in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, which appeared in paper format in April of 2007. Some of the background data is of interest: over 75,000,000 cases of food-borne illness occur in the United States each year and 5,200 of these result in deaths. Dawson's experiments were performed using Salmonella bacteria, which is found in a substantial percentage of poultry, roughly 10% in two studies by the USDA.

Every surface is a danger zone

My take on Dawson's results is 1). bacteria excrete chemicals allowing them to adhere to nearly any kind of surface (e.g., tile, rugs, cutting boards); 2). once they do so they have "biofilms," microscopic layers that allow them to survive for extended periods of time; 3). they can transfer from those surfaces to a variety of foods (Dawson used bread and bologna) very rapidly; so 4). the five-second rule is invalid and we all need to work on more effectively cleaning "food contact surfaces (counter tops and cutting boards come to mind).

I enjoyed watching the CNN interview with Dr. Dawson and will be intrigued to find out what his birthday candle research will show. In the meantime, I'll quit picking up food that has fallen on what appear to be clean surfaces; they're not.




Friday, October 14th, 2011

The culprits, this time.

Reading "USA Today" online, I found an article detailing the repercussions of the recent/ongoing outbreak of disease linked to cantaloupes coming from one specific farm in Colorado. That operation, Jensen Farms, re-called its fruit in mid-September. The Food and Drug Administration and the Seattle-based Institute for Environmental Health have not yet found the root cause of the outbreak. Since the normal shelf life for cantaloupe is ~two weeks, none of the Jensen Farm product should still be in stores. And no other sources have been implicated. Nonetheless, cantaloupe producers in California and Arizona, the two states with the largest crops of this fruit, are seeing sales plummet 80% or more.

That probably shouldn't surprise us. Spinach sales, devastated by the 2006 E. coli outbreak, are still down nearly a third in one California county.

As of October 12, the current outbreak had led to 116 illnesses and 23 deaths, making it the deadliest in more than a quarter century. There was another outbreak in Texas in October of 2010; that one was related to celery and resulted in 10 total illnesses and five deaths.

I went to several online medical sites to refresh my memory on Listeriosis. When I dealt with infections from this bacteria it was in immuno-compromised patients. Listeria is found worldwide, often in association with farm animals, many of which are otherwise healthy carriers of the bacterium. People can also be carriers and perhaps five to ten percent of us have Listeria in our bowel flora.

There are roughly 2,500 US cases of Listeria infections yearly and about a fifth of those infected die. Most are isolated cases, not major outbreaks The bacteria isn't transferred from person to person with the exception of pregnant women and their fetuses or newborn babies.

This is a foodborne illness, most commonly associated with improperly processed deli meats or unpasteurized milk products.

About 30% of all reported US cases occur in pregnant women. As opposed to the majority of us, who may have nonspecific symptoms, or none at all, pregnant women can transmit the infection to their fetuses or to their newborn infants. They also may have minor symptoms, if they are otherwise healthy, but Listeria can lead to miscarriages, stillbirth, premature birth or, potentially, to serious disease or death of newborn babies.

Others at higher risk for serious disease when infected with this bacterium include the elderly, diabetics, cancer patient, AIDS patient, those with significant kidney disease and anyone on immunosuppressive drugs.

It's tough to diagnose Listeria infections: the most common signs and symptoms include fever, muscle aches, nausea and/or diarrhea. There are no reliable tests for the bacteria, so the diagnosis is difficult in the absence of a history of exposure to a potentially contaminated food source during an outbreak.

Most of us clear the infection without any treatment; those at higher risk should be considered for immediate IV antibiotics and consultation with an Infectious Disease specialist is recommended (and if a pregnant woman has the inception, an Ob-Gyn specialist and a Pediatrician should be involved.

Turkey, anyone?

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Delicious if cooked correctly; potentially deadly otherwise

Last evening I was reading The New York Times breaking news on my Kindle. I scanned several articles and then read "Linked to Outbreak." This morning the same topic was reported on the second page of The Wall Street Journal.

In brief, the Cargill company has recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey, both fresh and frozen, believed linked to 79 illnesses and one death (so far) from contamination with the bacteria salmonella, in this case a strain of the common organism that is markedly antibiotic resistant. They've shut down one of their plants, in Arkansas, and says that's been the only one of their four turkey-producing plants involved.

That rang an alarm since I knew they had a plant in Fort Morgan, Colorado, roughly 80 miles east, where my in-laws live. I Googled Cargill and noticed there's even a branch here in Fort Collins. I found out the local branch is a research organization developing new forms of canola oil, but the Fort Morgan branch is a meat processing entity.

So I found background information on salmonella. One helpful website is a USDA Q&A four-page Fact Sheet. It mentions that salmonella bacteria are among the most common causes of foodborne illness, what we often term as "food poisoning." I'll paste in the link below, but wanted to mention some interesting background facts.

In Federal testing ten to fifteen percent of ground turkey is contaminated with salmonella and more than three fourths of those bacteria are resistant to at least one kind of antibiotic, since our current practice in raising food animals is to routinely give them drugs to prevent illness and, supposedly, to promote growth.

Katic Couric has a CBS News article online (see link below) where in February 2010 she explored the question Is "Animal Antibiotic Overuse Hurting Humans?" That story centered on MRSA, a drug-resistant staph strain that has become a major problem in and outside hospitals.

But the discussion veered off to the routine antibiotic use in other factory farm animals. One veterinarian said not every animal gets antibiotics on these huge farms, but drug distributors and dozens of farm workers in four farm belt states -Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma - said antibiotic use to promote growth is widespread on factory farms.

So what can and should we be doing in our own kitchens?

First thing is to be aware that cross contamination can occur; in other words when you're preparing raw turkey meat, your hands, utensils and cutting boards can help spread the bacteria to other foods.

learn to use this correctly

Then you need to thoroughly cook these meat products, an internal temperature of 165 degrees measured with an accurate meat thermometer should be sufficient to kill salmonella, according to several government sources.

Leftovers have to be properly stored, within an hour if the ambient temperature is 90 or above, in a refrigerator at 40 degrees or below. I leave a thermometer in our refrigerator and check the temp every time I open the door. I also make sure it's fully shut after I put food in for storage.

That's a brief overview; check the links for more information.


Let us eat lettuce...and more

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

I want more to a salad than just iceberg lettuce

Some years back I told my wife, "I'm tired of the same old salad; could you make a different one?"

We both cook, though she does more of of daily cooking than I do, but salad making is my least favorite part of cooking.

Over the next six weeks she never made a salad I had tasted before; her mix and match approach led to some surprises, but I'm always happy to try new dishes and almost all of them were successes. She added edamame, sunflower seeds, unusual greens; I ate them all. I finally told her, "I didn't mean an entirely new salad every time, just less of the iceberg lettuce, store-bought tomatoes and cucumber with familiar dressing.

We still eat salads at least once a day, sometimes as our main dish with chicken or fish added for protein. Sometimes we'll have a brand new mixture; sometimes I can recognize we've had this blend before and put it on the "keeper list."

Today I read about food companies attempts to get more Americans on the same dietary pathway. The Wall Street Journal had an article titled "The Salad Is in the Bag." I was amazed to read that the typical US adult eats salad with a meal only 36 times a years, roughly once every ten days. Less than half of Americans eat even one "leaf salad" in meals they serve at home in a two-week period.

The two of us are clearly on the far end of that scale when it comes to salad making. Our share of this weeks' vegetables from Grant Family Farms, our CSA, included summer squash, English peas, cabbage, carrots, kohlrabi, cilantro, parsley, green onions, a little broccoli, cylindra beets (new to us) and romaine lettuce. All of those veggies will find their way into salad

I've even gotten more enthusiastic about preparing some of the new salad combinations myself.

So what's going on with the "store-bought" salad concept?

A market research group reported the biggest issue is making salads. Apparently people don't want to take the time to wash produce, inspect it, cut it and come up with mixtures the family will eat (we won't even get into those who abhor greenery).

So some of the major food companies are responding by making salad preparation easier. One concept being explored is adding more kinds of vegetables to bagged lettuce or spinach. That way all you have to do is buy a bag, bring it home, open it before a meal and pour the contents into a salad bowl.

Well that sounds easy, but it turns out to be a bit more complicated than the simple version. One company found wheatberries absorbed moisture; their research director spent six months resolving that issue. Then there's the price issue; bagged salads cost more. Past history and the view of CPSI says there's more risk of pathogen growth and therefore of food-bourne illness.

But pre-washing with newer chemical mixtures, eliminating the need for a second wash at home, may help.

A new and improved version

Salad, anyone?


A sneeze, a wheeze or worse: part one

Friday, July 15th, 2011

a common food allergen

I've been reading about food allergies recently beginning with a Wall Street Journal article entitled "An 'Allergy Girl' Comes Out of Her Bubble." Sandra Beasley, author of that short piece, is in her early thirties, has major food allergies and has written a memoir, Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales fom an Allergic Life.

I found two medical websites dealing with the issue, one from the Mayo Clinic. and the other on We have to sort out food allergy from food intolerance, which is considerably more prevalent. I have mild food intolerance to milk and dairy products, presumably from a low level of the enzyme, lactase, which helps break down the lactose in those foods, but can drink a small glass of milk without any problems resulting. I have a relative who has fairly severe lactose intolerance and strictly avoids milk; if he drinks even a small glass, he's going to, at the very least, have lots of gas.

We have a local friend who is allergic to a protein in milk; she'll have bloody diarrhea if she drinks any quantity of it. She can drink coconut milk and, when she joins us at our favorite Thai restaurant, will order Thai ice tea with that substitution.

Mayo's website says the FDA requires food producers to provide a list of the big eight, the most common ingredients that cause around 80% of food allergies. The list includes milk, eggs, peanuts, so-called "tree nuts," including almonds, walnuts and cashews, fish including bass, cod and flounder, shellfish (e.g., crab, shrimp and lobster), soy and wheat.

Fresh meat, fresh produce and some oils don't require labeling, but packaged foods do. That holds true even when the allegen is in a flavoring, coloring or other ingredient. The manufacturers are required to list even small amounts of the allergens if and only if, they're actually contained in an ingredient.

But there's another issue or two or three. Some food allergens can be introduced via cross contamination, so many food producers will add statements like, "Manufactured in a factory that also processes peanuts." This is voluntary on the part of the food company and the FDA is working to make the format of these warning labels more consistent.

But the article from "allergy girl" describes an episode where she asked for a dairy-free menu in a restaurant, then ordered a drink. The cocktail came with a milky liquid bottom layer. Upon inquiry she found the garnish contained pine nuts.

The waiter said, "You didn't ask for the nut-free menu."

If you have severe food allergies and eat these, you may need the Epi-pen

In her case, as in the situation for many adults with major food allergies, multiple foods can cause life-threatening reactions.

We ask friends who are coming to our house for a meal what food intolerances and food allergies they have and plan accordingly. But two years ago, one man was about to reach for a dish that had a pine nut topping when his wife grabbed his hand.

"Did you forget to mention the last time you ate pine nuts, we had to visit the emergency room? she asked.

I was happy I had an Epi-pen in the nearby bathroom.



Have an apple or maybe some cilantro?

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

Snow White, you may wish to reconsider!

I was reading the Wall Street Journal a few days ago and found an article with the jolting title "Pesticide Residue Taints Apples." The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) tests a variety of foods for pesticides and this year 98% of the apples they screened tested positive. Most of us eat apples; they are the second-most widely consumed fruit in this country (bananas are first).

I next found the USDA website and information on their testing program. It's been going on yearly since 1991, tests over 85 "commodities" including foods that may be fresh, canned or frozen, poultry, beef and catfish. They also test water (bottled, private and school wells, municipal water sources). The Pesticide Data Program (PDP) tests for more than 450 distinct pesticides of a variety of types (herbicides, fungicides, growth regulators, insecticides). The most recent PDP statement I could find (2009) said samples were obtained from 11 states representing ~50% of US population and all regions of the country and analyzed in thirteen central laboratories.

Have some cilantro, my dear

This year samples were washed under cold water for ten seconds to emulate typical consumer actions and yet over 90% of those from grapes, strawberries, cilantro, potatoes, oranges and spinach (plus apples of course) had pesticide residue. Cilantro was tested for the first time and the data was frightening; 44% of cilantro samples not only positive tested for pesticides, but also for unapproved pesticides.

According to a number of online sources, we have in recent years shipped to other countries huge amounts of pesticides that are not allowed to be used in the US. Then, of course, we may import foods from those countries. The good news, limited as it was, came from the USDA; only 3% of 2009 samples from produce, beef and rice contained either unapproved pesticides or excess amounts of pesticides.

The US Apple Association, burned by a "60 Minutes" program in 1989 which linked the pesticide Alar to health risks, has long complained about the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen & Clean Fifteen lists. Yet the EWG's 2011 Shopper's Guide (I'll paste in the URL below), says if consumers chose from the good list they can reduce their daily pesticide intake by more than 90%.

So if you can, choose from the "Clean Fifteen" and otherwise buy organic; if not shop wisely and that's especially true for those of you who are purchasing food for youngsters. An EPA senior staffer, Devon Payne-Sturgis,PhD, Assistant Director of the National Center for Environmental Research, authored a prize-winning 2009 publication showing 40% of US children have levels of one type of pesticide well above what is considered to be the safe limit.

I'm going to see if we can buy organic cilantro and in another hour or so I'll go pick up our first shipment of this year's CSA veggies.