food safety

RECENT POSTS

Study: Well-Water Can Raise Arsenic Levels In Formula-Fed Babies

Parents already concerned by recent revelations about arsenic in rice, grains and juices, brace yourselves: A new study found higher levels of arsenic excreted by infants exclusively fed formula, compared to breast-fed babies. A likely culprit: well-water.

In the small study of private well-water users in New Hampshire, overall arsenic exposure was relatively low for most 6-week-old infants regardless of how they were fed. “So that’s good news,” says Kathryn Cottingham, a professor of biological sciences at Dartmouth and the study’s co-lead author. “That said, infants fed exclusively with breast milk were less exposed to arsenic than infants fed with formula, and some infants fed with formula may have been exposed to very high levels of arsenic due to high concentrations in their home tap water.”

In the study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers measured arsenic in the home tap water of 874 families, urine from 72 infants and breast milk from nine mothers.

(Donald Clark/Flickr)

(Donald Clark/Flickr)

Arsenic levels in the tap water tended to be well below the EPA’s recommended upper limit, researchers report. Still, they found that: “measured urinary arsenic concentrations were 7.5 times higher in exclusively formula-fed infants compared to breast-fed infants,” says Cottingham.

The bottom line, she says, is get your well-water tested.

“In terms of fear mongering, that’s the fear I’d like to instill: if you have well-water, get your water tested,” she says.”I don’t want to freak people out about feeding their babies formula.”

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in groundwater around the world — and in some places, in very high concentrations.

Exposure to high levels of arsenic, a human carcinogen, has a number of potential health consequences, the study authors note, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, adverse birth outcomes and altered immune systems. Continue reading

Yoga Mat Chemical For Sponginess Found In Many Popular Foods, Group Reports

(mckaysavage/flickr)

(mckaysavage/flickr)

I love my yoga mat as much as the next guy — it brings me peace, relaxation, calm. But I wouldn’t consider eating it. Now, it seems, I may have already taken a nibble.

The health advocacy organization Environmental Working Group today announced that its researchers found azodicarbonamide, or ADA — the industrial chemical that makes yoga mats (and flip-flops) light, spongy and malleable — listed as an ingredient in 500 popular items and “in more than 130 brands of bread, bread stuffing and snacks, including many advertised as healthy.”

(Update on 2/28: “In response to recent coverage surrounding the use of the FDA-approved food additive azodicarbonamide, Nature’s Own brand of soft variety and premium specialty breads, buns, and rolls, issued the following statement today:

Nature’s Own bakery foods do not contain azodicarbonamide. We removed this additive from all Nature’s Own bakery foods in 2013, and it is no longer used in any Nature’s Own products.”)

Here’s more from the EWG news release:

The controversial “yoga mat” chemical that Vani Hari, creator of FoodBabe.com, campaigned to remove from Subway sandwich bread has turned up in nearly 500 items and more than 130 brands of bread, stuffing, pre-made sandwiches and snacks, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group.

[Subway did ultimately remove the chemical from its sandwich bread.]

According to ingredient data obtained for a new food database project that is due out later this year, EWG researchers found azodicarbonamide, an industrial “chemical foaming agent,” on the labels of many well-known brands, including Pillsbury, Sara Lee, Shoprite, Safeway, Smucker’s, Fleischman’s, Jimmy Dean, Kroger, Little Debbie, Tyson, Nature’s Own and Wonder…

ADA is a synthetic substance used by plastics makers to generate tiny bubbles that make materials light, spongy and strong. These materials show up in flip-flops, yoga mats and many types of foam packing and insulation. In 1956, a New Jersey pharmaceutical and engineering firm discovered that ADA could be used as a “dough conditioner” to make bread that would rise higher, stay soft and resilient and form an attractive crust. The federal Food and Drug Administration approved its use as a food additive six years later.

The World Health Organization has linked ADA to increased risk of respiratory problems and skin irritation in workers handling large volumes of the chemical. The additive has not undergone extensive testing to determine its health effects on humans. Continue reading

When Your Salad Turns Poisonous

(Wikimedia Commons/Anthony92931)

(Wikimedia Commons/Anthony92931)

If you’re a hungry diner looking for culinary creativity, you probably aren’t headed to Olive Garden. The franchise’s offerings are predictable and dependable: no skimping on the chicken parm or bottomless breadsticks. But scores of people may have left Olive Garden establishments this summer with a surprise.

Starting in mid-June, more than 500 cases of cyclospora infection were reported in the U.S., with Texas, Iowa, and Nebraska residents being hit the hardest. Symptoms of the one-celled parasite include watery diarrhea and fatigue; the rest of the unappetizing information can be found on the CDC’s page.

On Tuesday, the FDA provided an update confirming that cases in Iowa and Nebraska were linked to contaminated salad mix from Taylor Farms of Mexico, which supplies restaurants like Olive Garden and Red Lobster. From the FDA report:

The FDA traceback investigation has confirmed that the salad mix identified by Iowa and Nebraska as being linked to the outbreak of cyclosporiasis in those states was supplied to restaurants in those states by Taylor Farms de Mexico, S. de R.L. de C.V., a processor of foodservice salads.    The FDA traceback investigation found  that illness clusters at restaurants were traced to a common supplier,  Taylor Farms de Mexico, S. de R.L. de C.V. The restaurants in Iowa and Nebraska include Olive Garden and Red Lobster, both of which are owned by Darden Restaurants.

The FDA did not specify how many cases were linked to Olive Garden. Customers who fell ill after eating at Olive Gardens have filed lawsuits against Darden Restaurants, the parent company of the chain, in OhioTexas, Iowa, and Nebraska.

So, the source of the 238 cases in Iowa and Nebraska has now been pinned down, but what about the hundreds of other cases in Texas and 13 other states? What’s causing the holdup? Continue reading

The Bagged Lettuce Backlash: Say It Isn’t So!

My heart sank when I saw this Mother Jones headline yesterday: “The Truth About Bagged Lettuce.”

The piece, unfortunately, is what I feared: a bunch of new concerns being raised about the kind of lettuce I’ve learned to love: pre-packaged and easy-to-use. It enables my family to eat far more, and more varied, greens than we would if I had to clean and tear them myself.

baby kale

In the post, Kiera Butler cites Jo Robinson, author of the new book “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health,” who recently “trash bagged lettuce on Fresh Air:”

“Many of these prepackaged greens might be two weeks old,” said Robinson ruefully. “They’re not going to taste as good, and many of their health benefits are going to be lost before we eat them.” Instead, she suggested, I should buy my lettuce whole and coddle it a bit. “If you take your lettuce right from the store and rinse it and dry it—and then if you rip it into bite-sized pieces before you store it—you’re going to increase the antioxidant activity…fourfold.”

Ouch.

Personally, I favor the triple-washed boxed lettuce, which may or may not be any better from an antioxidant perspective.

Either way, Butler lays out the environmental argument against bagged lettuce (excessive water use in some cases), as well as the threat of all kinds of contaminants — remember that organic baby spinach recall earlier this year due to possible E. coli contamination?

Despite all of this, I think I’ll take my chances. But to reinforce my own inclinations, I spoke with Sean Cash, associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts.

Cash raised all the same concerns: some possible slight breakdown in Vitamin C in bagged lettuce, a low level of E. coli risk, more plastic packaging in the environment, concerns over excessive water use in places like Salinas, Calif. where drought is an ongoing problem.

But overall, Cash said, these worries are pretty much trumped by the health benefits of just eating lots of lettuce, particularly if it means the difference between having it often or not at all. Continue reading

Five Things You Need To Know About Arsenic In Rice (Before Dinner Time)

(Dano/flickr)

When both Consumer Reports and the FDA issued reports recently about the high levels of arsenic in rice — notably brown rice — many moms, in the Whole-Foods-Buying-Whole-Grain-Loving crowd I tend to hang out with, freaked out.

An example from Brookline:

I was freaked out because the source of the warning seemed so trustworthy – FDA and Consumer Reports. I usually ignore these things but rice seems like such a basic. We eat a fair amount of rice (mostly brown) because we’re trying to be healthy and eat whole grains and not too much pasta, etc. etc…I love quinoa but my daughter doesn’t so I don’t make that as often. I also was freaked out because a Whole Foods brand was on there. I don’t buy that particular brand, but still…

Another mother from New York wrote:

I was upset — and also irritated– by the news. But mostly, I am anxious. We already have a lot of cancer in our family. I already spend so much time planning and preparing healthy alternatives to meet the diverse needs of my children (who favor certain foods) and my husband (who has tendencies toward reflux and high cholesterol and is a vegetarian) and myself (allergies and kosher).

We eat brown rice about twice a week for dinner…But my kids also enjoy rice crackers (brown and white) as well as rice cakes for “healthy” snacks. We also eat “yellow” rice and beans for breakfast almost every weekend morning at our favorite Cuban brunch spot…and as my husband is a vegetarian, we tend to eat out (or order in) from Asian restaurants about once a week (more helpings of brown rice and white rice as well as rice noodles). Altogether, that’s easily five helpings, not counting things like the rice-brownie treats that were handed out at the Maker Faire festival to my eager (innocent) children last weekend.

For background: rice is particularly vulnerable to this problem. Here’s why, according to Consumer Reports:

Rice absorbs arsenic from soil or water much more effectively than most plants. That’s in part because it is one of the only major crops grown in water-flooded conditions, which allow arsenic to be more easily taken up by its roots and stored in the grains. In the U.S. as of 2010, about 15 percent of rice acreage was in California, 49 percent in Arkansas, and the remainder in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. That south-central region of the country has a long history of producing cotton, a crop that was heavily treated with arsenical pesticides for decades in part to combat the boll weevil beetle.

And this doesn’t appear to be the case of just a tiny dash of toxin you can blithely ignore, given the reports. Inorganic arsenic (the type we are talking about here) is a known carcinogen. Again, Consumer Reports:

Inorganic arsenic, the predominant form of arsenic in most of the 65 rice products we analyzed, is ranked by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as one of more than 100 substances that are Group 1 carcinogens. It is known to cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer in humans, with the liver, kidney, and prostate now considered potential targets of arsenic-induced cancers.

So what’s an anxious mom to do? Are we doomed to quinoa? I turned to the Center For Science In the Public Interest and spoke with Caroline Smith DeWaal, the group’s director of food safety, and asked how consumers should react to the “worrisome” reports.

She said there are a number of steps consumers can take to reduce their exposure to arsenic even if they eat a lot of rice and rice products. Here, condensed and edited, are her top five suggestions:

1. Pay Attention To Where It’s Grown

“Rice grown in the Southeastern U.S. had the highest amount of arsenic, according to Consumer Reports, which makes sense given that this is the land where cotton was grown and arsenic was used as a pesticide for decades to combat the boll weevil. Continue reading

Recalled Trader Joe’s Peanut Butter Linked To Salmonella

reports:

Sunland Inc. in Portales, NM, manufactures the peanut butter associated with an outbreak of a rare Salmonella strain, industry sources tell Food Safety News.

Labeled as Trader Joe’s Creamy Salted Valencia Peanut Butter, the product was officially recalled nationwide Saturday by Trader Joe’s stores…

Sunland makes peanut butter — up to 6,000 pounds per hour — under several of its own brands and also makes Valencia peanut products for others including Trader Joe’s. A year ago Sunland hired a California design firm to design new label for peanut butter sold under the Kirkland brand by the wholesale membership giant Costco…

Salmonella comes in many strains. The strain that had led to the Trader Joe’s recall is rare. Salmonella Bredeney only accounts for 0.06 percent of Salmonella in the U.S. according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — and it can produce a range of symptoms, including some of the most severe. Continue reading

How Cards That Track Your Shopping Could Save You From Salmonella

You can’t help but find it a bit spooky that stores like Target analyze every little thing you buy to figure out whether, say, you might be in the second trimester of pregnancy and ripe for some major marketing of diapers. Lately, I’ve felt decidedly queasy about handing over my customer ID card at the supermarket, despite the big discounts.

Now, though, I’m feeling better about it. Turns out that when a supermarket uses your shopper ID to track your purchases, that also means that if there’s a recall of contaminated food, the store — if it’s so inclined — can use your information to call you and warn you not to eat those Turkish pine nuts you bought last Tuesday.

I use pine nuts advisedly. I recently heard an enlightening talk at a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship event by a top national foodborne-disease detective: Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases at the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases.

‘By the way, you bought this and we think you should know it’s associated with an outbreak and has been recalled.’

He regaled his audience with a series of contaminated-food mysteries and how they were solved using national surveillance networks and ever-more-refined methods. But the one that most stays with me is last fall’s outbreak of salmonella in several northeastern states, for an eventual total of 43 cases.

As the cases of Salmonella Enteritidis accumulated, a red flag went up in a surveillance system, and the disease-tracking public health detectives went to work. When the patients were interviewed about what they had recently eaten, Dr. Tauxe said, it emerged that seven out of ten had shopped at a particular chain of grocery stores.

My shopper ID fobs

After the patients gave permission, the investigators looked at their shopper card data, and found that all had bought a particular brand of bulk Turkish pine nuts. Within days, the store stopped selling pine nuts, and “did something more and more stores are doing: They sent a robocall to other shoppers who had bought the same nuts saying, ‘By the way, you bought this and we think you should know it’s associated with an outbreak and has been recalled.'” Continue reading

Report: Spicy Tuna Roll May Be Latest Salmonella Culprit

Spicy tuna roll. (aliciagriffin/Flickr)

(aliciagriffin/Flickr)

If you’re considering sushi for supper tonight, you might want to think again.

Food Safety News reports that federal regulators are investigating whether spicy tuna roll sushi is to blame for a recent salmonella outbreak that involves 19 states and the District of Columbia:

The majority of the cases have been reported from the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf coast, but include cases as far west as Missouri and Texas.

According to an internal FDA email, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has characterized this outbreak as “ongoing and rapidly expanding,” particularly due to the prolonged reporting lag time (which can be up to 32 days after a patient’s infection is confirmed by lab analysis). Seven people reportedly have been hospitalized.

The FDA has been working with the CDC in investigating the outbreak and is continuing to eliminate other possible vehicles as the source of the illnesses. CDC officials postulate that sushi is the likely source of this outbreak, with spicy tuna roll sushi “highly suspect.” Continue reading

When ‘Honey’ Isn’t Really Honey, And Where To Buy The Real Thing


Goodness, is there no one left to trust? First The Boston Globe enlightens us about all the bait-and-switch tactics at seafood restaurants. And now Food Safety News reports here that the “butterfish” isn’t the only food fraud around: Tests show that a great deal of storebought honey doesn’t meet the definition of honey, either.

More than three-fourths of the honey sold in U.S. grocery stores isn’t exactly what the bees produce, according to testing done exclusively for Food Safety News.

The results show that the pollen frequently has been filtered out of products labeled “honey.”
The removal of these microscopic particles from deep within a flower would make the nectar flunk the quality standards set by most of the world’s food safety agencies.

The food safety divisions of the World Health Organization, the European Commission and dozens of others also have ruled that without pollen there is no way to determine whether the honey came from legitimate and safe sources.

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration says that any product that’s been ultra-filtered and no longer contains pollen isn’t honey. However, the FDA isn’t checking honey sold here to see if it contains pollen.

The Food Safety News report includes a long and fascinating look into how honey is processed, why it matters and the dangers of Chinese honey. But if you don’t have time to read it all, here are the shopping tips: About three-quarters of the honey from typical supermarkets and big box stores had all the pollen removed, though honey labeled “organic” tended to be better. But “every one of the samples Food Safety News bought at farmers markets, co-ops and “natural” stores like PCC and Trader Joe’s had the full, anticipated, amount of pollen.”

‘Pediatrics’ Study: Kids’ Lunchboxes Too Warm For Safety

I’ll be rummaging through the freezer for those icepacks this morning.

Reuter Health reports here:

(Reuters Health) – If you’re packing lunch for your kid, chances are it will end up at unsafe temperatures before it’s eaten.

That’s according to a Texas study that tested more than 700 preschoolers’ lunch packs and found less than two percent of the meats, vegetables and dairy products were in the safe temperature zone.

“It was a shock when we discovered that more than 90 percent of the perishable items in these packed lunches were kept at unsafe temperatures,” said Fawaz Almansour, a doctoral student at the University of Texas in Austin.

His study, released on Monday in the journal Pediatrics, is the first to check how the food that kids’ bring to school is doing about an hour and a half before lunchtime.

I don’t see a link to the full study on the Pediatrics Website, but here’s their press release:

PRESCHOOLERS’ SACK LUNCHES REACH UNSAFE TEMPERATURES

Sack lunches packed by parents can be an inexpensive alternative to school-prepared lunches, but they can also make kids sick if not kept at a safe temperature. Even lunches that include ice packs can reach unsafe temperatures. In the study, “Temperature of Foods Sent by Parents of Preschool-aged Children,” published in the September 2011 issue of Pediatrics (published online Aug. 8), the sack lunches of more than 700 preschoolers at nine Texas child care centers were measured with noncontact temperature guns 1.5 hours before the food was served. Researchers found that 39 percent of the 705 lunches had no ice packs, 45.1 percent had at least one ice pack, and 88.2 percent of lunches were at room temperature. Only 1.6 percent of lunches with perishable items were found to be in a safe temperature zone, while over 90 percent (even with multiple ice packs) were kept at unsafe temperatures. Study authors suggest that parents and the public need to be educated on safe food packing practices in order to prevent bacteria from growing and potentially causing illness.