Booster Shots

Oddities, musings and news from the health world

Category: food safety

Parents have beef with school lunch standards

December 11, 2009 |  9:18 pm
Here's a finding that made American parents queasy this week: Fast-food meat standards are apparently more stringent than those for school lunches.

Take chicken, for example. A USA Today investigation reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave schools meat from old birds that make better food for pets or the compost heap. "Called 'spent hens' because they're past their egg-laying prime,” the article reads, “the chickens don't pass muster with Colonel Sanders— KFC won't buy them."

Parent bloggers are in an uproar. "Taco Day is a hit at our school, as is Breakfast for Lunch Day. But Spent Hen Day? I think we’ll pass," writes Bethany Sanders over at Strollerderby.

"I'm sure anyone could tell you simply from looking at the meat they serve in schools that it is probably as far from nutritious as it gets. It's been this way even since I was a kid, and it's not only the meat that needs an overhaul," a commenter wrote over at Mother Nature Network.

This doesn't mean parents should be throwing Big Macs into their kids' lunch boxes -- here's a couple of helpful sites on packing quick, healthful and tasty meals.

-- Amina Khan

Unsavory issues during the holiday season

December 7, 2009 | 10:20 pm
First the chicken. Then the beef. What will be recalled next? Toy hamsters?

OK, so the fake rodents are probably safe, but the recent spate of bad news on the farm-animal front should cause meat-eaters across the U.S. to worry.

Consumer Reports released an investigation last week that found bacterial contamination in about two-thirds of whole chickens sold in the United States. The consumer group took 382 chickens from retail stores in 22 states and found only 34% were free of both salmonella and Campylobacter, which is responsible for causing food poisoning.

And this weekend, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that more than 22,000 pounds of beef from Fresno-based Beef Packers Inc. would be recalled because of salmonella concerns.

Now that the holiday season is upon us, it's time that we take care when we purchase, prepare and eat  meat. Here are a few tips on cooking the stuff, thanks to the Department of Health and Human Services.

-- Amina Khan

Put down the Slim-Fast can -- regardless of flavor, sell-by date, etc.

December 4, 2009 |  4:32 pm

Bacillus The maker of Slim-Fast has recalled all of its ready-to-drink canned beverages. All of them. Turns out, the stuff might be contaminated with the bacterium Bacillus cereus.

Here's the notice, posted on the Food and Drug Administration's website and the Slim-Fast site.

It contains the usual "discard immediately," "contact the company ... for a full refund" advice. It also includes a list of the specific products being recalled, but there may be no need to check. The notice also says this:

"The recall involves all Slim-Fast RTD products in cans, regardless of flavor, Best-By date, lot code or UPC number."

Don't be too alarmed if you've already consumed such products, especially if it was more than a day ago. Food poisoning with Bacillus cereus hits fast, but is short-lived and relatively mild. For the latter reasons, it usually passes under the radar screen of public health officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports only a few cases a year.

Here's what the FDA has to say about Bacillus cereus. And there's this from Todar's Online Textbook of Bacteriology. The operative words in both references are diarrhea, abdominal cramps and vomiting.

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: An electron micrograph image of Bacillus cereus.

Credit: Associated Press

FDA word on BPA delayed

December 1, 2009 |  4:16 pm

Consumer groups, food packagers and the plastics industry have been awaiting a Food and Drug Administration reevaluation of bisphenol A, or BPA, the plastics additive that has been linked to health problems in a growing number of studies. 

But a self-imposed Nov. 30 agency deadline for an announcement has come and gone, leaving interested parties wondering what the hang-up is and how long it will be before the FDA weighs in. 

Soon, or at least fairly soon, according to an FDA spokesman, who said late Monday that “it won’t be 2010.” 

BPA is a plastics-hardening chemical used in dozens of household items, including CDs, canned food and baby bottles. The compound mimics the effects of the hormone estrogen and has been tentatively linked to a variety of maladies including cancer, diabetes and neurological and behavioral disorders in children.

Food packagers and chemical industry trade groups insist that in low levels BPA causes no harm. That was the FDA’s position, too, until about a year and a half ago when questions were raised about the agency’s reliance on studies financed by the plastics industry. Earlier this year, the FDA agreed to review the science on the chemical and issue a new evaluation, which was to have come Monday.  

Meanwhile, most baby bottle makers have stopped using BPA in bottles sold in the U.S. and several retail chains have pulled products containing the substance from their shelves.

In the last month, two more studies have added to the questions about BPA. In early November, Consumers Union reported that children eating multiple servings of a variety of tested food products could get doses of BPA approaching levels that caused harm in animal studies. The substance was present in even in packaging labeled "BPA free."

Later, the journal Human Reproduction reported that a federally funded study found that exposure to high levels of BPA appeared to cause erectile dysfunction and other sexual problems in men.

The FDA’s blown deadline has not gone unnoticed in food safety corners of the blogosphere, and this afternoon an outspoken "green" investment fund urged the agency to hurry up – and ban BPA. 

-- Andrew Zajac

Pass the turkey, hold the arsenic

November 24, 2009 |  1:32 pm

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) would like to remind you that the turkey defrosting in your fridge might be poisonous.

Turkey You see, that turkey may contain roxarsone, a food additive that poultry producers use to fight off parasites and help young chicks grow. But it is a derivative of arsenic, which isn’t necessarily the healthiest thing to eat. As the CDC warns:

“Ingesting very high levels of arsenic can result in death. Exposure to lower levels can cause nausea and vomiting, decreased production of red and white blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm, damage to blood vessels, and a sensation of “pins and needles” in hands and feet.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has declared that consumption of arsenic is safe at levels up to 0.5 parts per million in poultry muscle, and that roxarsone is OK to use. But Israel is not convinced. And so he has introduced a bill – the Poison Free Poultry Act of 2009 (H.R.3624).

On Monday, he held a news conference in his Long Island district to emphasize the gravity of the situation. According to a report in Newsday, he pointed to a bird and declared, “There is no good reason to be injecting poison into this turkey.”

Israel noted that the FDA’s safety threshold was set more than 30 years ago, and is in dire need of updating in light of medical research linking arsenic to such health problems as cancer and diabetes.

He has the support of Keeve Nachman, science director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. In a statement published on the center’s blog, he writes that:

“Studies have shown that some of the arsenic fed to chickens remains in the edible portions of the birds.  Arsenic has also been found in poultry waste, where it poses environmental and human health risks when the waste is managed, often by spreading on agricultural fields as fertilizer for food crops.”

The center has endorsed Israel’s bill, along with the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the Humane Society of the United States, The Clean Water Network, Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition, Food & Water Watch, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Waterkeeper Alliance, Illinois Citizens for Clean Air & Water, the Organic Consumers Assn., Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), Ohio Environmental Council, Friends of the Earth, the Center for Food Safety, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of Family Farmers, according to Israel’s website.

So far, the bill has zero co-sponsors in Congress, and it’s stuck in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. It’s unclear when – or if – it could become law, so in the meantime Nachman advises consumers to consider organic turkeys, which are roxarsone-free.

Or, if you don’t mind salt, you can try a completely meat-free alternative.

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: Could this bird be poisonous? Photo credit: Bill Hogan / Chicago Tribune

Food-borne infections endanger long-term health, especially for kids

November 12, 2009 |  3:12 pm

Fair warning: Put down that salad or medium-rare cheeseburger you're eating, pitch the brie cheese you enjoy with a glass of wine, and clear the chicken and leafy greens from the plate in front of Junior. Because you're not going to want eat or serve any of them after you read what a pair of reports released Thursday by the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, have to say:

Long after the painful stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea of a brush with tainted food is over, many of us suffer long-term health effects, mostly unrecognized, that are the result of food-borne pathogens. These lingering effects can be very bad -- as bad as premature death, paralysis, kidney failure and a lifetime of seizures or mental disability. Many researchers believe these persistent health consequences cause more disability, lost productivity, doctor-office visits and hospitalizations than the acute illnesses that follow exposure to a food-borne toxin.

And while high-profile cases of food-borne illness have been caught, publicized and probably brought to an early end in recent years (think spinach, alfalfa sprouts, ground beef, peanut butter and tomatoes), the incidence of poisoning by tainted food is probably vastly understated.

As if all that isn't bad enough, food-borne pathogens cut their widest swath of destruction among the youngest of us. Children under 4 are disproportionately the victims of poisoning by the food-borne pathogens CampylobacterE coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella. And roughly half of all reported cases of food-borne illness affect kids younger than 15. Because younger kids are smaller, it takes a smaller dose of harmful bacteria to sicken them, and their less-experienced immune systems don't combat food-borne pathogens as effectively as do those of adults. They're more vulnerable, too, because their stomachs don't produce the volume of acids that adult digestive systems do.

In addition to urging public health officials, physicians and researchers to do a better job of understanding and stopping outbreaks of food poisoning, the American Academy of Pediatrics, in a campaign called Make our Food Safe for the Holidays, urges the following steps for consumers:

  • Cook meat thoroughly.
  • Clean work surfaces, cutting boards and bowls thoroughly after using them on uncooked meats or eggs to prevent contamination of other foods.
  • Wash produce before consuming it.
  • When buying milk and juice, make sure they're pasteurized, and make sure that products made from milk are made with pasteurized milk.
  • Report any food-borne illness to a local health department.

The Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which have shared responsibility for preventing, detecting, tracking and responding to food-borne illness, are exploring ways to improve their performance in tracking the sources of outbreaks. Meanwhile, here's a list of the chief culprits, the foods in which they're most commonly found and some of the possible long-term consequences of infection, all from the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention report:

Salmonella. The leading cause of food-borne illness in the United States, salmonella is harbored by foods with animal origins, including beef, poultry, milk and eggs. It causes 16,000 illnesses and 556 deaths per year. It can cause reactive arthritis -- painful and swollen joints mainly in the lower limbs -- from which patients generally recover in two to six months. Eye irritation and painful urination can also be long-term effects.

Campylobacter: Food-borne sources are raw and undercooked poultry, unpasteurized milk and contaminated water. It causes an estimated 2 million acute human illnesses (the vast majority in children under 4) and 124 deaths yearly. Long-term effects can include Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an acquired and sometimes permanent paralysis, reactive arthritis (like Guillain-Barre, an autoimmune reaction) and chronic arthritis.

E. Coli O157:H7: Disproportionately affecting children under 19, E. Coli can taint ground beef and other meats, green leafy vegetables, unpasteurized (or raw) milk and cheeses made from such milk. About 15% of children infected with E. coli O157:H7 develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can lead to kidney failure, chronic kidney problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, gallstones, irritable bowel syndrome, narrowed gastro-intestinal passages and neurological problems -- including seizures -- that can take as long four years to resolve.

Listeria monocytogenes: An estimated 2,500 in the U.S. are infected with Listeria each year, and roughly 500 of them die. Listeria monocytogenes taints vegetables grown in contaminated soil or fertilizer, contaminated meat or poultry products. Cold cuts, hot dogs, smoked seafood, raw milk and soft cheeses made from such milk are common sources. In pregnant women -- roughly one-third of those victims --  listeriosis can cause miscarriage, premature death or stillbirth. Surviving fetuses may have mental retardation, hearing loss or brain damage. Adults infected with listeriosis can suffer neurological effects, including seizures and impaired consciousness. About a third experience cardiorespiratory failure.

--Melissa Healy

Baby food and the potential for botulism poisoning, there and elsewhere

October 20, 2009 | 10:09 am

Any recall of baby food is worrisome, but toss in a reference to botulism -- as does the most recent recall notice -- and the worry can become alarm. But hold off. This action is quite limited in scope, affecting only one batch of one product, Plum Organics' 4.22-ounce apple and carrot portable pouch baby food.

The product has a best-by date of May 21, 2010, and a  UPC code of 890180001221. It was sold at Toys-R-Us and Babies-R-Us stores, and no illnesses have been reported 

Here's the recall notice, dated Monday, from Plum Organics.

It begins: "I wanted to let you know that, today, Plum Organics voluntarily recalled a small portion of our Apple & Carrot Baby Food in Portable Pouches after a routine test determined the formulation was incorrect. Plum Organics immediately investigated the matter and confirmed that a mixing error was to blame which resulted in an improper blend of carrots and apples."

That sounds benign enough, but keep going and you'll find this:

"The recall was undertaken as a precaution due to the risk of potential contamination with Clostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism, a serious and sometimes life-threatening condition."

Here's more on botulism and the organism that causes it, from the Food and Drug Administration.

Two key points:

"Onset of symptoms in foodborne botulism is usually 18 to 36 hours after ingestion of the food containing the toxin, although cases have varied from 4 hours to 8 days. Early signs of intoxication consist of marked lassitude, weakness and vertigo, usually followed by double vision and progressive difficulty in speaking and swallowing. Difficulty in breathing, weakness of other muscles, abdominal distention, and constipation may also be common symptoms."

And: "The incidence of the disease is low, but the mortality rate is high if not treated immediately and properly."

Here's some additional information from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, discussing common sources of botulism poisoning.

Home preparation is often the culprit. The CDC notes: "Foodborne botulism has often been from home-canned foods with low acid content, such as asparagus, green beans, beets and corn. However, outbreaks of botulism from more unusual sources such as chopped garlic in oil, chile peppers, tomatoes, carrot juice, improperly handled baked potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil, and home-canned or fermented fish. Persons who do home canning should follow strict hygienic procedures to reduce contamination of foods. Oils infused with garlic or herbs should be refrigerated."

-- Tami Dennis

Aquarium looks to the future of the oceans -- and seafood consumers

October 20, 2009 | 12:02 am


The nutrition experts say eat more fish. But then marine scientists say the oceans are being depleted and many species are increasingly threatened. What's a healthful eater who cares about the planet to do?

One answer is to eat from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Super Green" list of seafood that's good for people and the planet. It's part of the aquarium's "State of Seafood" report issued today. The report says that prospects for the oceans are improving with a growing consensus of how to manage wild and farm fishing.

The report sets out significant problems that remain for the oceans, and the primary factor in the oceans' decline is the human demand for seafood, the report says. Industrial-scale fishing has threatened commercial fisheries and threatened populations of animals including whales, tunas and sharks, it says. It notes that "bycatch," the unintentional capture of animals in fishing gear, is the single greatest threat for nearly 250 species of ocean animals.

"Ocean life is still in decline and we clearly need to take urgent action to turn things around," says Julie Packard, executive director of the aquarium. "The good news is that we know what it will take and that key players are working more closely than ever to solve the problems."

The report notes some positive developments: a consensus set of principles for restoring ecosystems and commercial fish populations; commitments from major seafood buyers to sustainable sources; and improved government policies to manage fisheries and fish farming. And, the report says, there is a growing public awareness of the need to take action.

The report says that the world seafood supply was 110 million tons in 2006 -- eight times what it was in 1950, with Asia accounting for more than half the global catch. And in the next year, people will eat more farmed seafood than wild for the first time.

Farmed fish, the report says, can help fight hunger, but aquaculture also can cause pollution and disease among other problems. It cited some success stories, including arctic char, eaten as an alternative to salmon and raised on land in tank systems that don't harm the oceans.

While the health benefits of seafood have been well documented, seafood also contains risky toxins such as mercury. The aquarium's report says no accepted methodology exists for quantifying the risks and benefits of eating seafood with high contaminant levels, though U.S. authorities have recommended that children, pregnant women and others avoid certain fish, including shark and swordfish.

The "Super Green" list was developed in conjunction with the Harvard School of Public Health and the Environmental Defense Fund.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the aquarium and the 10th anniversary of its Seafood Watch program, which advised people on what fish to buy and to avoid for their health and that of the oceans. The aquarium says it has distributed 32 million Seafood Watch pocket brochures.

-- Mary MacVean

Aquaculture photo courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium

Check the expiration date on foods

October 8, 2009 | 11:55 am

MilkA study of Los Angeles food markets has found high numbers of products with expired freshness dates. The study was conducted primarily in markets in low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles, but it's possible the sale of expired foods is a problem elsewhere, said author of the study LaVonna Lewis, a professor of Policy, Planning and Development at USC.

The study, which began in April 2008, and ended in February, enlisted 90 members of the community to keep checklists of what they encountered during their food shopping trips. A total of 657 checklists were submitted. The surveyed stores were primarily in the South Los Angeles area, but some checklists were submitted on stores in other communities. The stores included small markets and large supermarket chain stores.

The shoppers found at least one expired poultry, beef of dairy product in about one-third of the stores visits made over the study period. In 18% of the visits, residents found at least three expired poultry, beef or dairy items.

In an analysis of five stores that were heavily surveyed, the rates of expired poultry ranged from 19.2% to 39.5%. The range for expired beef was 20% to 41.8% and for dairy products, 26% to 45.4%.

The shoppers, however, found sufficient access to special diet foods, such as low-salt, low-sugar and lactose-free foods.

The study was sponsored by the Community Health Councils Inc., a project that addresses healthcare inadequacies in communities in a partnership with USC. Lewis presented the data last month at the 2009 California Reach Us Conference and is preparing her findings for publication in a scientific journal.

Future studies will try to determine if expired food products are found more often in low-income areas, Lewis said.

"It's a quality question," she said. "Shouldn't people have access to fresh, healthy foods no matter where they live? It's also a resource question. If you have limited resources, aren't those resources used less effectively if the food you purchase in your neighborhood is quickly out of date?"

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Tim Boyle  /  Getty Images

A risky-foods list probably isn't meant as a slam against vegetables

October 7, 2009 |  9:55 am
Lettuce Alas, "good for you" doesn't mean "safe for you." Perhaps there's no way it could, not completely, but that doesn't stop the Center for Science in the Public Interest from trying to make the terms more similar...

Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nutrition and health advocacy organization has released a report on what it calls the riskiest foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

The top 10 foods, with the number of outbreaks and reported cases of illness (there were likely more, the organization says), between 1990 and 2006:

  • Leafy greens, 363 outbreaks, 13,568 illnesses
  • Eggs, 352 outbreaks, 11,163 illnesses
  • Tuna, 268 outbreaks, 2,341 illnesses
  • Oysters, 132 outbreaks, 3,409 illnesses
  • Potatoes, 108 outbreaks, 3,659 illnesses
  • Cheese, 83 outbreaks, 2,761 illnesses
  • Ice cream, 74 outbreaks, 2,594 illnesses
  • Tomatoes, 31 outbreaks, 3,292 illnesses
  • Sprouts, 31 outbreaks, 2,022 illnesses
  • Berries, 25 outbreaks, 3,397 illnesses
  • These 10 foods, the organization says, have been responsible for 40% of all food-borne outbreaks in that time frame -- for a total of 50,000 cases of reported illnesses.

    Here's the full report. And its larger point, as stated in the group's press release: "The presence of so many healthy foods on such a list is exactly why the United States Senate should follow the House and pass legislation that reforms our fossilized food safety laws." 
    And here are some tips on food safety as it relates to produce, courtesy the Chicago Tribune. As the tips deal only with produce, there's nothing about ice cream. Washing produce thoroughly, however, is likely to make it both good and safe for you.

    -- Tami Dennis

    Photo: The presence of leafy greens at the top of this list is personally painful.

    Credit: Associated Press



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