food safety


The Death Of Tomatoes, Sewage Lagoon Shrimp And Other Scary Food Stories

You may not think that tomatoes are terribly newsworthy. But there they were, featured on Fresh Air yesterday, the center of a must-hear interview with the investigative food reporter Barry Estabrook. In his new book, Tomatoland, he writes about the 15 or so mysterious ingredients needed to breed a tomato that tastes (almost) like it was plucked from a backyard garden in August, but he also details changes in the agriculture industry that have basically killed “our most alluring fruit.”

For instance, he tells Terry Gross: “My mother, in the ’60s could buy a tomato in the supermarket that had 30 to 40 percent more vitamin C and way more niacin and calcium. The only area that the modern industrial tomato beats its Kennedy-administration counterpart is in sodium.”

Beyond nutritional content, Estabrook provides hair-raising details about the working conditions on tomato farms: Continue reading

Are Pine Nuts Making You Sick?

Update from the FDA on 1/18/2011: There have been about 100 complaints about “pine nut mouth” from 2/22/2009 to the present. There were two with reports of gastrointestinal illness and the rest were reported as taste disturbances which we would not consider an illness. In September 2010, FDA directed our field offices that receive complaints to collect samples and sent them to an FDA laboratory for research. We are hoping the information obtained from consumers and the analytical results will help to determine what causes the problem and if additional action is necessary. Please check back with me periodically as we attempt to learn more about this issue.
Siobhan DeLancey, RVT, MPH
FDA Office of Public Affairs

Have you experienced Pine Mouth?

A friend of mine just emailed to tell me she’s experiencing a bizarre medical phenomenon I’ve never heard of: “Pine Mouth.

According to a bunch of reports on the Internet, all in the past year or so, this odd disorder is linked to pine nuts imported from China. The symptoms seem to range from a metallic taste to a fierce aversion to the taste of most foods. My friend describes it as “a powerful sensation of disgust” that she can’t get rid of. Pretty much everything tastes awful, some foods even more horrible than others. Here’s what she wrote:

I was just eating them raw as a snack at night and it started the next morning, I think. I usually get pine nuts from Russo’s and haven’t had a problem, but I bought these at Star Market. They were much less expensive, so I was happy about that. And they tasted fine.

It’s a very powerful sensation of disgust you can’t get rid of. At first I tried brushing my tongue with my toothbrush, then listerine, nothing helps, and eating makes it worse.

In what I read online, the thing that tastes the worst is wine (I haven’t tried that yet). But it got me thinking it would be a great diet aid if you could control the dose (whatever IT is). The only thing that is good to me at the moment is water with lemon juice in it. Plain rice with nothing on it is OK. Sweet and salty are the worst. Citrus is awful, blueberries somewhat palatable. Anyway, it’s really an interesting experience, apart from the yuckiness..

Readers, let me know if you have had “Pine Mouth” or whether you’ve discovered anything about its origins.

Breaking News: Senate Passes Food Safety Bill

AP reports that the U.S. Senate passed a food safety bill that would give the government broad, new power to inspect food processing facilities and force companies to recall tainted products.

The proposal includes these key elements:

–Allow the FDA to order a recall of tainted foods. Currently the agency can only negotiate with businesses to order voluntary recalls

–Require larger food processors and manufacturers to register with the Food and Drug Administration and create detailed food safety plans

–Require the FDA to create new produce safety regulations for producers of the highest-risk fruits and vegetables

–Establish stricter standards for the safety of imported food

–Increase inspections of domestic and foreign food facilities, directing the most resources to those operations with the highest risk profiles

Now, the different versions of the bill passed by the House and Senate must, somehow, be reconciled for it to become law.

A String Of Cheese Recalls And The Future Of Food Safety

Is your cheese platter safe?

We are now officially entering the season of Cheese Platters — so watch out. NPR’s health blog today notes that Whole Foods, which just recalled a brand of cheddar cheese sold in 5 Western states, is just the latest in a long line of cheese suppliers recalling their potentially gut-wrenching (literally) products.

Unrelated cheese recalls this month have included gorgonzola by Mauri Brand and sold at Costco and queso fresco from a company called Del Bueno. Queso fresco and other fresh, unpasteurized cheeses are beloved by foodies for their flavor. But they are often fingered for causing foodborne illness.

The FDA has been accused of being overzealous when it comes to raw cheese, prompting at least one recent protest by a small farmer, but regulators say it’s safety, not size, that matters in a recall. Food safety attorney Bill Marler has a 2010 hit list of the recalls associated with raw cheese and raw milk right here.

With all the recent outbreaks of food-borne illness, Marler, an old pal of mine from Seattle, is doing quite well representing victims. He first attained local fame back in the early 1990s, winning a $15. 6 million settlement (a record for Washington State) on behalf of a little girl seriously sickened by a Jack In The Box hamburger. In many ways, Marler made the little bacterium E. coli a household name. Recent;y, he launched his own newspaper, The Food Safety News. Here’s my Wall Street Journal profile of his food safety consulting firm, which he calls “Outbreak.”

Speaking of food safety, everyone should read this op-ed by Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser in The New York Times today urging the Senate to pass a Food Safety Bill to give regulators some marginal power to protect the nation’s food supply.

The bill would, for the first time, give the F.D.A., which oversees 80 percent of the nation’s food, the authority to test widely for dangerous pathogens and to recall contaminated food. The agency would finally have the resources and authority to prevent food safety problems, rather than respond only after people have become ill. The bill would also require more frequent inspections of large-scale, high-risk food-production plants.

Last summer, when thousands of people were infected with salmonella from filthy, vermin-infested henhouses in Iowa, Americans were outraged to learn that the F.D.A. had never conducted a food safety inspection at these huge operations that produce billions of eggs a year. The new rules might have kept those people — mainly small children and the elderly — from getting sick.

Marler is working with some senate staffers to help broker a deal on the food safety legislation, but he’s not terribly optimistic. “If I had to be a betting person, I would bet it would not pass,” he told me, “but then I’ll just be busier than ever next year.”

Boo: Candy Recall Includes Raisinets, Mega Pops Lollipops

Two brands of Halloween candy are recalled

WebMD reports a Halloween candy recall: Some Nestle’s Raisinets may contain peanuts and Mega Pops lollipops might contain “tiny amounts of stainless steel.” (Apples anyone?)

Nestle USA’s Confections and Snacks Division, based in Glendale, Calif., says it is recalling 25,000 Nestle Raisinets Fun-Size 10-ounce bags because some may contain “undeclared peanuts,” which could prove dangerous to people with peanut allergies.

And Miami-based Colombina USA spokesman Bradley Gerber tells WebMD that the company has recalled 90,000 bags of its popular Mega Pops brand lollipops because the candies may contain “traces of foreign particles,” believed to be tiny amounts of stainless steel.

The report states: “Nestle USA says only snacks with a production code of 02015748/UPC number 2800010255 production number are affected… Customers with questions should call 800-478-5670; the company says consumers also may email the firm at And Colombina says it does not believe its lollipops pose a health risk but is withdrawing candies identified by UPC code numbers 0 14272 10873 9 or 0 14272 10862 3 in lots numbered 1240695, 1209708, and 1209796.”

Daily Rounds: Drug Co. Money Flows To Docs; Recalled Walmart Peas May Contain Glass; How To Live To 100; Organizing Boston Hospitals

Docs on Pharma Payroll Have Blemished Records, Limited Credentials – ProPublica “Drug companies say they hire the most-respected doctors in their fields for the critical task of teaching about the benefits and risks of their drugs. But an investigation by ProPublica uncovered hundreds of doctors on company payrolls who had been accused of professional misconduct, were disciplined by state boards or lacked credentials as researchers or specialists.” (ProPublica)

And here’s another, related story:

Mass. doctors earn drug firms’ dollars – The Boston Globe “While some doctors who gave speeches once or twice during 2009 and 2010 earned $2,000 to $3,000, more than two dozen Massachusetts psychiatrists, endocrinologists, and other specialists who gave frequent talks brought in $40,000 to $100,000 and, in a few cases, more. Dr. Lawrence DuBuske, an allergy specialist, earned the most: $219,775. The Globe reported earlier this year that he resigned from Brigham and Women’s Hospital largely because of its new speaking ban.” (Boston Globe)

Frozen Vegetables Sold at Kroger and Walmart Recalled – “PR Newswire reported that the Pictsweet Company announced a voluntary recall of certain codes of store brand products containing frozen green peas after the company learned that some of the packages may contain glass fragments, which may cause injury if ingested. Products subject to this recall were distributed only to Kroger stores in the Southeast United States and Walmart stores throughout the United States.” (

Personal Health – Three R’s for Extreme Longevity – Esther Tuttle is pushing age 100. "Her memoir and replies to (a reporter's) queries revealed three critical attributes that might be dubbed longevity’s version of the three R’s: resolution, resourcefulness and resilience. Throughout her long life, she’s taken hardships in stride, traipsed blithely over obstacles and converted many into building blocks. And she has adhered to a regimen of a careful diet, hard work, regular exercise and a very long list of community service, all while raising three children." (The New York Times)

Running a hospital: Tactical update on SEIU Paul Levy on union organizing at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center: “There has been a theory circulating around town that this tactical decision to avoid MGH and Brigham and Women's Hospital might have its origins in the personal relationship between the former head of the SEIU and the Chief Operating Officer of PHS [Partners Health System], who served as an Deputy Secretary of Labor under President Clinton. Will SEIU's reluctance to take on the PHS hospitals be put aside now that Mr. Stern has left the SEIU and the COO [Tom Glynn] is leaving Partners?” (Running A Hospital)

Pediatric Expert Reassures on Similac

Amid the worried buzz about the big recall of Similac formula, many parents may be linking any recent stomach upset in their babies to possible bits of bugs in their bottles. But here’s some reassurance from the chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ nutrition committee, Dr. Jatinder Bhatia:

“The reality check is that a lot of people are saying ‘one and one makes two,’ but we really don’t know whether beetle juice or parts are harmful or not. It’s a supposition the FDA made,” he said in a phone interview. “The FDA doesn’t know, and to be cautious, they said it may cause gastro-intestinal upset, but there have been no case reports saying, ‘I used this formula and this is what happened.'”

Beetles do contain foreign protein, he said, so it stands to reason that there’s a possibility that contamination could provoke a reaction. But “If it’s due to any kind of contamination, it should play itself out within two to three days.”

His advice? “Definitely check your lot number,” and “See your physician if you have doubts.”

This reassuring stance was echoed by Ronald Samuels, associate director of the primary care center at Children’s Hospital Boston.

“It sounds like a horror movie,” Dr. Samuels said by phone. “But this appears to be a theoretical risk more than a real one. Even if you eat this stuff — it can cause stomach problems, upset stomach, nausea — but it will not cause long term problems, it won’t poison your kids.”

He noted that children sometimes eat dirt (perhaps bug-laden) inadvertently, on the playground or while playing soccer, and they generally survive. “It’s nasty, it’s ugly, its nauseating to hear about,” Dr. Samuels said. “But it’s going to be O.K.”

Breaking News: Similac Recall

(We just got the official recalled Similac product list from Abbott. Please pass it around to your friends with formula-drining infants.)

At first it sounded like a prank: Five million containers of Similac formula recalled for…possible bug parts? But here’s the official Abbott page on its Similac recall.

It says: “Abbott is recalling these products following an internal quality review, which detected the remote possibility of the presence of a small common beetle in the product produced in one production area in a single manufacturing facility.”

Given how expensive formula is — doesn’t it strike you as somehow wrong that it’s often shelved behind lock and key in drug stores? — there’s no need to just throw all your containers out. You can check whether a given jar is good here — if the site is holding up under the heavy traffic — or call (800) 986-8850.

Inevitable quip as I think about bug parts in a baby’s bottle: Maybe the Similac slogan should be not StrongMoms but Moms With Strong Stomachs?

Daily Rounds: Check Your Eggs; Blue Cross Costs; Paul Levy's One-Liner

Step away from that frying pan! And check your eggs first: the recall for salmonella, first announced yesterday, may be the biggest in 20 years, ABC news reports. The exact types recalled are here, courtesy of the Egg Safety Center.

The new head of Blue Cross Blue Shield, Andrew Dreyfus, says his top priority will be to cut costs, The Boston Globe reports.

This is kind of a jaw-dropper from the Archives of Internal Medicine: 82 percent of patients in the hospital cannot name the physician in charge of their care, though more than 60% of physicians thought the patient knew their name. More than half of patients didn’t know their diagnosis. File under: What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Paul Levy, the gorgeously transparent head of Beth Israel Deaconess, shares a great one-liner today from a meeting of his medical chiefs: “So now we have a new expensive device that is just as good as the old cheap one.”