General Health

Seafood Decisions Further Stifled by Report

bluefin_tunaSustainability is almost a laughing matter (or crying one, rather) when it comes to seafood. Populations are often exploited via overfishing, threatened by poor aquaculture practices, or contaminated by power plant runoff, oil spills, etc. It's truly a sad situation for fish, our number one source of omega-3s.

But Consumer Reports (the magazine produced by Consumers Union) has delivered us the latest unfortunate news, pointing out that mercury rates in tuna surpass EPA's daily limit.

These levels in tuna (a fish high on the aquatic food chain) have been of specific concern for children and pregnant women for some time. Both the FDA and EPA recommend each demographic consume no more than 12 ounces of light tuna (only six ounces of white tuna) per week. These guidelines are too lax, according to new testing. Time Magazine reports:

Every sample that Consumer Reports tested had measurable levels of mercury, ranging from 0.018 to 0.774 parts per million (ppm). Samples of white tuna ranged from 0.217 ppm to 0.774 ppm and averaged 0.427 ppm — enough that by eating 2.5 ounces of any of the tested samples, a woman would exceed the daily mercury intake considered safe by the EPA.

In light of the test results, CU makes its own recommendations that are more cautious than those made by the federal agencies, lowering young children's servings to 4 ounces of light tuna, or 1.5 ounces of white tuna per week. For pregnant women, CU recommends avoiding canned tuna completely and selecting a low-mercury fish instead.

Spikes in certain samples pose a threat to consumers, who have no way of knowing if the canned tuna they purchase has average or unusually high levels of mercury. Mother Jones notes:

Given the fact that mercury content varies dramatically from can to can, Consumers Union recommended in 2006 that the FDA issue a warning that some cans of white tuna may contain levels that exceed those on which the daily consumption recommendations are based. The agency hasn't issued any such warning yet.

Good food advocate Naomi Starkman quotes Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union, who provides further evidence that the FDA is behind on seafood regulation.

Halloran noted that there may well be other species that vulnerable groups like pregnant women should avoid, but the FDA needs to conduct more testing to draw conclusions. "The last set of FDA data gathered from 2002-2004 and published in 2006 needs to be updated and the sample size of many species should be increased," she said.

While the government remains hands-off, we’re forced to rely on consumer groups and certain retailers to tell us what is safe and sustainable. Fish consumption is a tricky issue, with problems in one area or another appearing in most types of seafood. The best bet for consumers is to be selective. In terms of mercury, that means eating fish lower on the food chain.

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

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Faster Salmonella Detection Still Requires Whistleblower Protections

The seemingly endless number of contaminated food recalls has everyone racing to tackle them with solutions. While we continue to wait on food safety legislation in the lame duck Congress that would give the FDA mandatory recall power (among other things), university researchers have placed their focus on better detection of food pathogens to prevent the need for recalls in the first place.

Prof. Azlin Mustapha
Photo Courtesy of University of Missouri Cooperative Media Group
Azlin Mustapha, a food scientist and professor at the University of Missouri, has developed a new lab test that will detect live Salmonella in as little as five to 12 hours rather than the five days it can take using the current testing method commonly used throughout the industry.
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Public Health at the Core of Food Integrity

phys_exam1FIC is coming down from a mile high! Last week I was in Denver, Colorado at the 138th American Public Health Association Convention. Over 12,000 nurses, doctors, and those concerned with public health, converged to participate in this year’s APHA Convention themed “Social Justice: A Public Health Imperative.”

Without a doubt, social justice is an important aspect of public health. In many ways, it’s at the center of our work here at FIC. We all eat, and food is a necessary communal resource. Not surprisingly, social and political inequalities arise regarding its access, acquisition, and quality. FIC strives to correct those inequalities by working to alter the relationship of power between the food industry and consumers, protecting the rights of those who speak out against the practices that compromise food integrity, and empowering industry whistleblowers and citizen activists.

Whistleblowers and citizen activists are a necessary part of protecting public health and the integrity of the food system – from soil to plate. In public health terms, they play an important role in “public health surveillance.” That is to say, they report the looming food safety dangers that ultimately guide public health action. With adequate occupational free speech rights:

  • immigrant workers could safely make reports of excessive use of pesticides that endanger food and lives,
  • food processing whistleblowers could warn federal authorities of potentially lethal foodborne illness outbreaks, and
  • citizen activists could spread the truth about dangerous agricultural waste run-off from factory farms.

FIC and our whistleblower mission were in good company in Denver among the many public health advocates working for social justice. For FIC, social justice requires that food is made available through means that are consistent with commonly held values -- that food should be produced humanely, safely, and sustainably without exploitation. Equally as important, when these expectations are compromised, workers should be empowered to protect food integrity and public health without fear of retaliation.

Amanda Hitt is Food Integrity Campaign Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.

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UK Health Policies Can Now Be Supersized for an Extra 99 Cents

Photo by wikimedia user Partyzan_XXI

Several multi-national retail and fast food businesses – many U.S.-based such as McDonald's, PepsiCo, and Kellogg's – have been invited to help shape UK policy regarding obesity, alcohol, and diet-related disease.

Yes, you're reading that correctly.

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SF vs. Fast Food: No More Toys ‘til You Eat Your Fruits and Veggies

Photo by flickr user moonpir

Remember Beanie Baby mania in 1999? People would wait in line forever just so they could get Ringo the Raccoon in their Happy Meal. These days it's Star Wars Clone Wars fingerboards, or Shrek Forever After watches. The marketing ploys of McDonald's and other fast food chains have been remarkably effective in drawing young consumers into their restaurants.

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Pharmacy-Turned-Grocery Store at a Food Desert Near You

When I think of food at CVS or Walgreens, the two largest U.S. drugstore chains, I think of Cheez-Its and ramen noodles, not fruit and salads. Food at these chains is usually just a side item when people get caught browsing the aisles after renewing a prescription or grabbing extra toilet paper. I don't shop there for groceries. But in many urban communities around the country, good food options are lacking – and these retail chains aim to fill the void. Business Week reports:

Pharmacy chain CVS Caremark is adding fruit, salads, sandwiches, and other prepared meals at a growing number of its city locations. The second-largest U.S. drugstore chain, behind Walgreen, plans this year to remodel about 300 urban stores to carry food items in Boston, New York, Washington, Detroit, and Philadelphia. Eventually one-fifth of its 7,000 stores could be reconfigured, CVS says.

Photo by wikimedia user Specious

CVS and other convenience stores that traditionally haven't marketed groceries are adapting to untapped U.S. markets in dire need of fresh foods. How "fresh" their new items will be is another question – but they will help serve communities that now rely on corner stores with limited offerings beyond junk food. Maybe for the first time there will be healthier food competition in underserved areas. Even Wal-Mart, which is readying to open smaller outlets in U.S. cities next year, will have to hold its own against these retail chains already in place.

The article pointed out what's good for these communities is good for business too:

The U.S. government is offering $400 million a year in loans and tax incentives to lure stores offering better quality food to these underserved areas by 2017, part of First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign to reduce childhood obesity.

Although we still have a long way to go in the battle against food deserts in America and the conflicting dynamic between low cost and high quality food, providing communities with more options can't hurt.

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

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Students Hospitalized After Consuming Caffeinated Booze

Photo by flickr user ghostdad

Was an alcoholic energy drink to blame for putting nine college students in the hospital earlier this month? A party at Central Washington University (CWU) left several freshmen "passed out and so intoxicated that investigators thought they had overdosed on drugs," according to the Associated Press. But no drugs were found in their bloodstreams. The suspected culprit appears to be a caffeinated malt liquor - Four Loko - that combines a high concentration of alcohol with as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. Mixing the two is hardly a new concept, but not at such high amounts in a single large can.

Though it's a popular drink for young people wanting to get drunk fast, health advocates suggest the mix of a stimulant (caffeine) and a depressant (alcohol) can "mask a person's level of intoxication," possibly leading to overconsumption and injury.

Currently, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (under the Treasury Department) allows the same amount of caffeine in alcoholic drinks as it does in cola drinks. The FDA announced in November 2009 that it would review whether the use of caffeine in alcoholic beverages was Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS), but an assessment has yet to be released almost a year later. The agency has requested from Phusion Products, the maker of Four Loko, information proving the safety of adding caffeine to alcoholic beverages, but the case remains open. NYT reports:

At the urging of 18 attorneys general, the Food and Drug Administration, which has never approved adding caffeine to alcohol, is reviewing whether the drinks are safe. And in July, Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether the drinks, with colorful packaging and flavors like watermelon, blue raspberry and lemon-lime, are “explicitly designed to attract under-age drinkers.”

Lawmakers in several states, including New York, have sought to ban the drinks, though no legislation has passed yet.

What happened on the CWU campus was not an isolated incident. The same thing occurred at a college in New Jersey last month, and similar events will likely continue happening if the government doesn't take action soon.

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

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