Mott’s Apple Juice Laced with Arsenic No Big Surprise

First it was chicken, now it's apple juice. Arsenic levels in our food supply, either via drug-filled feed for CAFO livestock or pesticide in Chinese orchards, epitomize the regulation problems both within and outside the United States.

Photo via flickr user Hyougushi

How much is too much when it comes to using toxic chemicals used to kill bacteria (and promote poultry growth) and keep away pests? They have clearly entered the food chain, including a popular juice that kids drink -- Mott's Apple Juice -- as shown in new test results. A sample of the juice contained 55 parts per billion of arsenic, surpassing the EPA tolerance limit of 10 parts per billion. According to Judy Braiman, executive director of the Empire State Consumer Project (co-sponsor of the testing along with GAP coalition partner Food & Water Watch), "this is not the first time high levels of arsenic have been found in apple juice." Yet the FDA doesn't even have a tolerance level for arsenic and other heavy metals in juice, though the product contained more than five times the level of arsenic allowed in drinking water.

The fact that China provides the bulk of apple juice consumed in the United States (70%!) is not so surprising, but not so comforting either. Arsenic-based pesticides are apparently widely used in Chinese agriculture, and with what little regulation the FDA undertakes of food imports, of course the actions of our trading partners are going to impact American consumers (whether or not their practices are considered illegal here at home). FIC has already blogged about the lack of oversight and stigma whistleblowers face in China and the threat it poses to us in the states. The tainted apple juice is more visible proof.

Sarah Damian is New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.

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Reality Check: Food Companies Beef Up E. Coli Testing to Fuel Marketing Hype

Talk about catering to the food industry's public relations agenda. This NYT article already presents a problem just with its headline wording [emphasis added]:

Food Companies Act to Protect Consumers from E. Coli Illness

The recent move by food retailer Costco Wholesale and lean beef manufacturer Beef Products Inc. (BPI) to expand bacteria testing requirements with additional E. coli strains seems to make sense, considering the countless lethal outbreaks that continue to wreak havoc here and abroad. But don’t get it twisted. It’s merely an act to gain a competitive advantage and appeal to consumers' growing concern regarding foodborne illness. I wouldn't identify the companies' motivation as protecting consumers so much as gaining profits off them or, in this case, publicity.

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Food Safety Budget Cuts: A Punch in Whistleblowers' Faces

A disappointing loss for food safety regulation took place June 16 when the agriculture appropriations bill passed the House by a vote of 217 to 203. It's not really a surprise, given Republicans' recent deficit-cutting priorities and apparent reliance on the food industry policing itself. As Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), the bill's author, justified it on the House floor:

“The food supply in America is very safe because the private sector self-polices, because they have the highest motivation. They don’t want to be sued, they don’t want to go broke. They want their customers to be healthy and happy.”

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Industry-Run Meat & Poultry Inspection A Terrible Idea

With outbreaks left and right, our food system is certainly in need of better oversight. Government officials need to resist BigAgra lobbyists' charms and focus on protecting the citizens who put them in office. But big business, not food safety, seems to be on the mind of some House Republicans who suggest giving industry the power to inspect itself rather than spending money on funding government inspections.

A bill that recently passed the House Appropriations Committee lacks the necessary funds for our regulatory agencies  to function successfully. In addition to the bill's text, a supplemental report meant to explain the legislation includes the expansion of a controversial inspection program for U.S. meat and poultry. This pilot program, HIMP (HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project), essentially shifts the responsibility of determining our food safety from USDA inspectors to the companies themseves. Anytime the fox is guarding the henhouse we’re putting ourselves in a sticky situation.

pigsBut it gets worse – meat and poultry industry employees don’t have whistleblower rights. What if the employees charged with assuring that carcasses aren’t contaminated with feces witness a food safety problem? Without whistleblower protections, industry higher ups could easily (and often do) stifle workers’ voices. 

In 2001, the Government Accountability Office strongly criticized HIMP for multiple weaknesses, and there has yet to be a thorough independent analysis of the pilot program since then. Now there is a proposal to increase the use of this program - regardless of its possible impacts on food safety. Looks like some lawmakers are more preoccupied with cutting costs upfront than preventing future illnesses.

But as food safety advocate Barbara Kowalcyk articulated, "foodborne disease is economically significant." Preventing outbreaks and the ensuing millions of dollars spent on medical care and public health resources … that's what saves money. Effectively funding and staffing the USDA and FDA, as well as ensuring legal protections for whistleblowers, will better equip the agencies to do just that.

Sarah Damian is Social and New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.

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Corruption in Chinese Food Inspection Exposes Dire Risks at Home

Photo via Flickr user Joe Hastings

Holding food producers accountable for the products they market for consumption is essential, but the lack of oversight (or acquiescence of corruption, rather) in China necessitates greater scrutiny of U.S. imports and those who inspect them.

The health and safety of individuals have been threatened by tainted products in nearly every sector of China’s food and agriculture (fruit, meat, vegetables, pasta, steamed buns, cooking oil, etc.), with more than 1,000 cases so far this year, according to the Chinese news service Xinhua. The article states that 57 government staff are under investigation for taking bribes and "for dereliction of duty" in several dozen food safety cases, including drug-tainted pork. Furthermore:

The dereliction of duty by government staff caused huge losses, the official said, giving an example that the infraction of rules by two officials from the animal husbandry bureau of Jiyuan, Henan Province, caused more than 30 million yuan (4.6 million U.S. dollars) in losses.

The two breached rules by not conducting tests of the banned additive clenbuterol, which was fed to pigs to stop them from accumulating fat, on pigs sent to food factories.

Whistleblowers, particularly in China, already have a tough time trying to report wrongdoing in the food industry, despite being in the position to stop contaminated food from reaching consumers. These truth-tellers face even more obstacles than usual when those in charge of monitoring the food supply are actually in cahoots with industry.

But this issue has become so rotten that the government can’t cover it up. Local media has even been given freer reign to report on food safety issues. Police departments in the country have also made efforts to crack down on food crimes, including "publicizing complaint hotlines." Maybe whistleblowers will now be credited instead of silenced, like the father of a foodborne illness victim from the 2008 melamine scandal.

To say that transparency around food production in China lacks integrity is an understatement. The situation is quite alarming given the fact that 1) China is the fourth largest exporter of food to the U.S., and 2) our regulation of food imports is extremely insufficient. A Washington Post exposé earlier this month explained the limited ability of the FDA to inspect Chinese food importers, only being able to focus on certain high volume companies.

Irene Chan, assistant country director for FDA's China office in Beijing, added that "she and her colleagues face language and cultural barriers, and challenges getting data and being told the 'true story.'"

Clearly afraid of getting in trouble, representatives from one Chinese company lied to FDA inspectors and said they didn't ship to the U.S., Time Magazine reported. Even though the agency receives "scores of tips about unsafe imported food each year," the article writes, "FDA inspects only about 1% of the roughly 10 million products shipped into the country annually."

Last week, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor explained that because of the agency's limitations, most import monitoring is performed by third party auditors. He pointed out that they lack standards and may have conflicts of interest, but he claimed that the recently passed Food Safety Modernization Act aims to standardize import regulation and address those concerns.

According to Time Magazine, though, the FDA plans to hire hundreds of third-party certifiers to inspect overseas food facilities. One certifier looking forward to reap the benefits of this plan is Bureau Veritas, a French company that already advises Walmart (whose biggest trading partner is China) on how the retail giant's food products can meet U.S. safety standards. A rep from the French firm said he sees the law as an opportunity for more business. I'm not sure how reassuring that is for consumers, but who knows if FDA will even be able to carry out its hirings and actually implement the new law, as funding uncertainty remains.

Food safety reports in China and debate over imports won't end any time soon. What we need are more people within industry and the government that are safe enough politically to stop food scandals in their tracks.

Sarah Damian is Social and New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.

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Coalition Update: Advocates Applaud DeLauro's Push for Food Safety Panel

On May 20, GAP joined fellow members of the Safe Food Coalition in sending a joint letter to Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, praising her efforts to improve USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. Specifically, the letter applauds Rep. DeLauro's proposal to create a science-based panel to analyze and develop recommendations for modernizing the agency's meat and poultry safety procedures.

The letter also highlights the recent report that identifies the riskiest food-pathogen combinations -- of which meat and poultry top the list -- reinforcing the need to improve the safety of these products (and address the concerns that whistleblowers continue to raise).

Read the coalition letter here (PDF).

Sarah Damian is Social and New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.

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Industry Organizes Study on Egg Farm Conditions

The Sacramento Bee reported on a new three-year research project that aims to study various types of housing for egg-laying hens and their impact on food safety, worker safety, environmental impact, animal welfare and food affordability. It all sounds well and good on the surface until you look at who is actually putting the study together and in what context. Big industry has initiated this effort, labeled "the first of its kind," as a means to supposedly fill the gap in scientific knowledge around egg production. But really this is nothing new—industry exploring how best to protect its pocket.

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