General Health

The Real Motivation Behind McDonald's New "Healthier" Happy Meal?

happy_meal_attPhoto via flickr user Cosmic KittyYou may have heard that McDonald's has announced some "healthier" changes to its menu: adding fruit and reducing the portion size of fries in every Happy Meal, lowering the total calories by 20 percent. Whether you believe it's a step, though small, in the right direction or simply strategic marketing (or both!), the word is definitely out.

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Whistleblower to Speak on Neurotoxic Pesticides in Food

Is toxic food in your diet? Former GAP client and whistleblower Renee Dufault will be at our D.C. office next week to discuss neurotoxic pesticides found in commonly consumed foods, and their impact on human brain function.

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Photo via wikimedia user PI77

This timely lecture, happening on Thursday, June 23 at 12:30pm in the GAP Washington, D.C. office, comes shortly after the Environmental Working Group released its annual report on pesticides in produce. The group updated its "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean 15" lists of fruits and vegetables with the highest and lowest traces of pesticide residue, based on government testing.

Dufault will speak on organophosphate (OP) pesticides, including samples detected in corn and wheat. The health impacts of chronic, low level exposures to OP may include Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder prevalence, among other concerns (including the co-exposure of OP and mercury, which Dufault has already explained may appear in foods with High Fructose Corn Syrup).

Despite various data on the topic, a lot remains uncertain when it comes to how much is safe. As Marion Nestle wrote on her blog (and was re-quoted in the LA Times), "if ever there was a situation where more research was needed, this is it." More lectures with experts and truth-tellers like Dufault regarding pesticides in food are essential.

Join us on June 23 to learn more on this topic. Space is limited, so please RSVP to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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-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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Whistleblower Critiques Study Regarding Mercury in Fish and Cardiovascular Health

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Renee Dufault

It's old news that fish consumption increases our exposure to mercury, but a recent study explores the link between mercury-tainted fish and the risk of cardiovascular disease. Former GAP client and whistleblower Renee Dufault (who previously raised concerns about the presence of mercury in food products with High Fructose Corn Syrup) co-authored an article questioning the study's finding that women with higher mercury exposure from fish consumption had lower cardiovascular disease risk.

"We scratched our heads to try to understand how this finding could be found," Dufault's article writes.

The critique, submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine which published the study (which received much popular media attention), highlighted the fact that women in the study had higher levels of selenium, which is believed to protect against mercury exposure.

Dufault and her fellow researchers also pointed out that the study participants were mostly white, educated U.S. adults and thought it unfortunate that the press reported the findings "as if they apply to everyone." From the article:

Higher mercury exposure levels than those found by Mozaffarian D et al. could indeed contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease, especially in the setting of selenium deficiency.

...

These findings cannot be generalized to apply to Americans in other ethnic groups that consume far more fish and have greater mercury exposures such as those found in a study published by Dr. Jane Hightower in 2006 (6).

Dufault's ability to make an open and honest analysis of scientific data illustrates the importance of occupational free speech.

A survey of hundreds of FDA and USDA employees carried out by GAP coalition partner Union of Concerned Scientists showed that science was commonly obscured as agencies deferred to business interests in the food system.

"Hundreds of scientists and inspectors responsible for food safety have personally experienced political interference in their work, and that's bad for public health," said Francesca Grifo, director of UCS's Scientific Integrity Program. "Both the administration and Congress need to act."

Dufault knows what it's like for politics to get in the way of science, as when the FDA officials told her to back off her HFCS investigation in 2005. Rather than be silent, she left the agency and ended up publishing her findings in two peer reviewed journals in 2009.

Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org (another long partner of GAP), acknowledged that while the Obama Administration is making efforts to "repair the severe damage done in the last decade to scientific integrity and the ability of government scientists to speak publicly from their knowledge, unacceptable risks and challenges remain for many who do so."

We still have quite a journey ahead to ensure adequate free speech and whistleblower rights. Those who dare to speak up and counter mainstream opinion should be acknowledged for their bravery.

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

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First Lady Hopes Big Industry = Big Nutrition for "Let's Move"

michelle_obamaBuilding on her "Let's Move" anti-obesity campaign, First Lady Michelle Obama is ready to take on the restaurant industry. She has already partnered up with Wal-Mart, whose vice president Leslie Dach was recently interviewed on The Colbert Report (see video below) to explain the company's new collaboration with the White House.

Are companies like Wal Mart, which Stephen Colbert jokes is its own government, too big? Mrs. Obama's search for input from industry giants has raised concerns. NYT writes:

In seeking partnerships with industry, Mrs. Obama runs a risk. While nutritionists and public health advocates give her high marks for putting healthy eating on the national agenda, many worry that she will be co-opted by companies rushing to embrace her without offering meaningful change.

As the government works to make sure consumers are doing well, it also works to make sure the food industry is staying afloat. The U.S. military has purchased seafood from the Gulf in order to boost the industry amidst lingering consumer fears of unsafe fish after the oil spill.

The complicated relationship between the administration and industry is a never-ending conflict of interest, thus the necessity for whistleblower protections for food employees -- to alert the public about wrongdoing happening behind the scenes.

These issues that come up every day in the news continue to reinforce the work we do here at FIC, where it is clear (through the industry insiders we've worked with) that any effort to ensure safe, healthy food cannot be effective without giving voice to the millions of workers along the supply chain. To learn about would-be whistleblowers in the food industry and their significance in public health, the environment, and consumer choices, register for our conference, Employee Rights and the Food Safety Modernization Act, taking place Friday in Washington D.C.

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Wal-Mart Collaborates With Obama Administration - Leslie Dach
www.colbertnation.com

Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog</a> Video Archive

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

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Zero Trans Fat? Think Again.

Misleading product labels remain an issue in the U.S. food industry, and trans fat hogs the spotlight this time. An article in a new issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion explains how trans fat amounts portrayed on FDA-approved labels can lead consumers to exceed the recommended daily limit of 1.11 grams. Science Daily reports:

Current law requires that fat content of greater than five grams be listed in one gram increments, less than five grams be listed in .5 gram increments, and lower than .5 grams as containing zero grams of fat. Meaning, if a product has .49 grams of trans fat, the label can list the trans fat content as zero, thus masking a significant amount of trans fat that can exceed recommended limits and potentially lead to various adverse health effects.

...

Despite what seems to be a small amount of trans fat to ingest, research shows that increasing daily trans fat consumption from .9% to 2.1%, or from two grams to 4.67 grams, will increase one's risk of cardiovascular disease by 30%.

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Photo by wikimedia user Neil T

Trans fat consumption has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and cancer by many nutrition researchers. Just eating a few snacks with a "zero trans fat" label could easily bring people over the recommended limit. The journal article's author, Eric Brandt, recommends that the FDA revise its labeling protocol to promote an informed consumer populace, providing the public with the ability to identify high-risk processed foods. Listing the fat in .1 gram increments would allow people to calculate their actual trans fat intake when they're eating "zero trans fat" cookies or Krispy Kremes. At present, zero doesn't necessarily mean zero.

Of course, mislabeling issues related to nutrition don't stop at trans fat. A Boston Globe piece notes other misleading labels such as calorie-free cooking sprays and "sugar free" chocolate bars. A blog in the New York Times shows how the claim of reducing sugar content could just mean reducing the serving size, not necessarily a reduction in your intake.

All of these confusing phrases have become an industry pattern where profit is clearly prioritized over the consumer, hence the call for regulated front-of-package labeling that is transparent and beneficial to health-conscious shoppers.

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

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Foodborne Illness Estimate Doesn’t Mean Fewer Americans Getting Sick

Screen_shot_2010-12-16_at_11.21.04_AMWhen food safety comes up in debate, one number advocates and legislators often throw around is 76 million -- the total number of Americans the CDC estimated in 1999 that suffer from food-related illnesses every year. Well, now they'll have to change their rhetoric after a long-awaited CDC update estimates a new total of 48 million annual foodborne illnesses.

But before you get too excited in thinking food poisoning has declined, consider the agency's new means of obtaining data, which it says cannot be compared with earlier figures. BusinessWeek reports:

The number of people reported as affected by foodborne illness has dipped from previous years, the CDC said, but that's mostly due to improvement in the quality and quantity of the data used and new methods used to estimate foodborne disease.

The new numbers reflect several changes to the CDC’s methodology, including "improved surveillance of illnesses, better criteria for determining an actual food-related illness, and exclusion of international travel-related illnesses."

48 million is still a ridiculously high number, with 1 in 6 Americans falling ill each year, causing 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths from eating contaminated food. The CDC asserts there is plenty more work to be done on reducing foodborne illness.

A major obstacle is that the majority of illnesses are caused by unknown pathogens. NYT writes:

Researchers estimated that four-fifths of the foodborne illnesses each year, or about 38 million, are caused by what they called “unspecified agents.” That includes pathogens for which there is little data and those that have not yet been discovered. It also may include chemicals in foods that scientists have not yet identified as the cause of illness.

The other 9.4 million illnesses stem from 31 identified pathogens, including Salmonella, which caused the most deaths and hospitalizations of the known agents.

Although food safety clearly remains a major problem, consumer and public health groups welcomed the updated estimates. They look forward to seeing the CDC’s anticipated breakdown of which foods are most often tied to which pathogens in 2011.

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

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