Tuesday, January 27, 2009

High fructose corn syrup contaminated with mercury and other food safety news

I can't wait to see the new ad-campaign to try to wiggle out of this one. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has issued a report, Not So Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup, revealing that mercury was found in nearly 50 percent of tested samples of commercial high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The research article was published January 26th in the scientific journal, Environmental Health by Renee Dufault et al. From the IATP report:
What she found was that possible mercury contamination of these food chemicals was not common knowledge within the food industry despite the availability of product specification sheets for mercury-grade caustic soda that clearly indicate the presence of mercury (as well as lead, arsenic and other metals). Upon further investigation, she found mercury contamination in some commercial HFCS, which can be made from mercury-grade caustic soda.

Through this public scientist’s initiative, the FDA learned that commercial HFCS was contaminated with mercury. The agency has apparently done nothing to inform consumers of this fact, however, or to help change industry practice.Consumers likely aren’t the only ones in the dark. While HFCS manufacturers certainly should have been wary of buying “mercury- grade” caustic soda in the first place, the food companies that buy finished HFCS and incorporate it into their processed food products may be equally unaware of how their HFCS is made, i.e., whether or not it is made from chemicals produced by a chlorine plant still using mercury cells.

The HFCS isn’t labeled “Made with mercury,” just like contaminated pet foods, chocolates and other products have not been labeled “Made with melamine.” Under current regulations, that information is not made available to either consumers or to companies further down the food supply chain.

When we learned of this gap in information, we set out to do the FDA’s work for it. We went to supermarkets and identified brand-name products—mainly soft drinks, snack foods and other items mostly marketed to children—where HFCS was the first or second ingredient on the label.

We sent several dozen products to a commercial laboratory, using the latest in mercury detection technology. And guess what? We found mercury. In fact, we detected mercury in nearly one in three of the 55 HFCS-containing food products we tested. They include some of the most recognizable brands on supermarket shelves: Quaker, Hunt’s, Manwich, Hershey’s, Smucker’s, Kraft, Nutri-Grain and Yoplait.

No mercury was detected in the majority of beverages tested. That may be important since sweetened beverages are one of the biggest sources of HFCS in our diets. On the other hand, mercury was found at levels several times higher than the lowest detectable limits in some snack bars, barbecue sauce, sloppy joe mix, yogurt and chocolate syrup. Although closer to the detection limit, elevated mercury levels were also found in some soda pop, strawberry jelly, catsup and chocolate milk. The top mercury detections are summarized in Table 3, on page 14 of the report.
Environmental mercury from chlorine plants, coal-fired power plants, dental offices and other sources have helped contaminate albacore tuna, swordfish and many of our favorite fish with mercury. Eating these fish has long been thought to be the most important mercury exposure for most people.

However, HFCS now appears to be a significant additional source of mercury, one never before considered. When regulators set safe fish consumption recommendations based on an understanding of existing mercury exposure, for example, they never built mercury contaminated HFCS into their calculations. HFCS as a mercury source is a completely avoidable problem. HFCS manufacturers don’t need to buy mercury-grade caustic soda. And the chlorine industry doesn’t need to use mercury cell technology. In fact, most chlorine plants in the U.S. don’t use it anymore, as it is antiquated and inefficient.

While we wait for the FDA to do its job and eliminate this unnecessary and completely preventable mercury contamination, we have a few suggestions for what you as consumers and voters can do.

Currently, food manufacturers don’t list on their products the source of HFCS and whether or not it is made from mercury-grade caustic soda. So call them. Make use of the toll-free numbers or Web sites on many packages, and let companies know you’re not comfortable eating their product until you know exactly what is in it. As voters, call your elected officials and ask them for hearings to find out why the FDA is not protecting us from mercury in HFCS.

Also, ask these officials to reintroduce legislation originally proposed by then-Senator Barack Obama a few years ago that will force the remaining chlorine plants to transition to cleaner technologies. Because even if they stop providing the caustic soda used for HFCS, their mercury pollution is still contaminating our food system as it falls on farm fields and waterways.
Tom Philpot at the Grist also covers this topic in Some heavy metal with that sweet roll? Seems to me the house of cards is falling with food safety. In the FDA's spotlight is salmonella in peanut butter from mildew in peanut butter plants, melamine in dry milk from China, and the myriad of meat contamination, with its sights probably on the newest report of Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) being found in swine and swine farmers in the Netherlands and Canada. The more of these reports that continue to surface, the more people will be looking towards alternative food systems. A blessing in disguise?

Vilsack names top advisors and 48 other appointments

The patiently awaited announcement from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has arrived as he releases his chief of staff, and deputy chief of staff as well as 48 other appointments filling key points at USDA.

Drum roll please!

Chief of Staff is John Norris. According to the press release:
John Norris has been chairman of the Iowa Utilities Board since 2005 and served as Governor Vilsack's first chief of staff in 1999. He served as Senator John Kerry's Iowa Caucus Campaign Manager and as National Field Director for the Kerry-Edwards Campaign. He was the Democratic nominee for Iowa's Third Congressional District in 2002. Norris is a graduate of Simpson College and the University of Iowa Law School. He also served as state director of the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition in the mid-1980's. He is married to Jackie Norris, who serves as Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama. They have three sons.
Deputy Chief of Staff is Carole Jett.
Carole Jett recently left federal service after 33 years to participate on the Obama Agriculture campaign team in Indiana and served as Co-Lead of the President's Transition Team USDA Agency Review Group. She served as Farm Bill Coordinator for USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) prior to her retirement. Previously, she led the NRCS 2002 Farm Bill implementation effort and served on assignment with the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee.
Sarah Wyant at Agri-pulse has collected a list the 48 other appointees. As far as I can tell, I don't see any of the "sustainable dozen that Food Democracy Now has petitioned for in the last few months. As Jill Richardson points out on La Vida Locavore, many of the positions have "acting" in front of them, meaning they are doing the job until they are official appointed or replaced.

Vilsack's first line of business was repealing the proposed $3 million dollar cut to the Fruit and Vegetable Program, proposed by the previous administration. A nice 'good-bye gift,' I guess. He also has extended the comment period for 2008 Farm Bill Farm Program Payment Limitation and Payment Eligibility rulemaking process. Vilsack discussed his priorities in a teleconference call:

"Let's be clear - in no way is this move(extending the comment period) a signal that we will modify the rules for the 2009 crop year," Vilsack said. "Sign up has begun and it's important that clear and consistent rules remain in place so that producers can prepare for the crop year and manage their risk appropriately."

To date, USDA has only received seven comments on the payment limits rule and Vilsack says that by extending the comment period additional farmers and other interested parties will have the opportunity to comment.

"In keeping with President Obama's recent pledge to make government more transparent, inclusive, and collaborative, I would like to pursue an extended comment period so that more farmers and other individuals can participate in this rulemaking process," he said. "I'm particularly interested in suggestions that would help the Department target payments to farmers who really need them and ensure that payments are not being provided to ineligible parties for future crop years."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Some great blogs from talented friends

I have encountered three friends of mine that have some great blogs that should be shared.

First, my childhood friend, Johnny, who goes by the allies Flapjacks in cyberworld, has some great photos and documentation of his Epicurean experiences on his blog: The Life and Times of a Bearded Weirdo. (Recipes included) I am ashamed to have missed my chance to dine with Flapjack and endure his culinary skills while I was back in Austin. His also offers up interesting perspectives coming out of Central Texas in regards to cooperative living and intentional communities.

Second, fellow Friedman student and friend, Amy Scheuerman. Amy has a really good looking blog called Earth Bound Kitchen: In Touch with the Earth: Seasonal Cooking that boasts a TON of awesome recipes all documented in a data base. Her blog archives go back to March of 2007. She also takes great pictures of her creations. Don't let her fool you; she's not as sweet as she looks, but her apple pie is!

Lastly, is the another fellow Friedman student, Asta Schuette. Asta's blog, Only An Almond Bean: Trying to fill-in all the missing links between food, agriculture, and society covers timely food and agriculture issues facing the nation and the world. Asta has a strong desire to connect community and culture through food. She is a member of Slow Food and recently went to Terra Madre in Spain and traveled during the holiday in India. Her Almond Bean is a great place to get down to the nitty gritty.

All for now!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

USDA releases 'naturally raised' marketing claim standard

The USDA Agriculture Marketing Services has issued a voluntary standard for 'naturally raised' livestock and meat marketing claims.

Naturally raised, often used as a marketing tool to attract consumers concerned about animal welfare, has up until now not had a official definition.

The new standard states that livestock used for the production of meat and meat products have:

1. been raised entirely without growth promotants, antibiotics (except for ionophores used as coccidiostats for parasite control)

2. have never been fed animal by-products

The voluntary standard will establish the minimum requirements for those producers who choose to operate a USDA-verified program involving a naturally raised claim. USDA analyzed over 44,000 comments from producers, processors, consumers, and other interested parties in the development of this standard.

Many are concerned that:

a) the standards aren't stringent enough on what it means to 'naturally raise' an animal. Under this ruling, animals raised in CAFO's (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) can still be tagged natural.

b) the new label will undercut the USDA Organic certification and/or farmers pushing to establish sustainable raised meat.

The Consumers Union and Food and Water Watch say the new standards sanction un-natural practices.

"This regulation will allow an animal that has come from a cloned or genetically engineered stock, was physically altered, raised in confinement without ever seeing the light of day or green of pasture, in poor hygiene conditions with a diet laced in pesticides to be labeled as ‘naturally raised.’ This falls significantly short of consumer expectations and only adds to the roster of misleading label claims approved by USDA for so-called natural meat," said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Senior Scientist and Policy Analyst at Consumers Union.

"These last minute rules for the 'naturally-raised' label on meat practically invite agribusiness to greenwash their products and rip off consumers" stated Patty Lovera, assistant director for consumer group Food & Water Watch. "Until these standards are revised, consumers will have to navigate another set of misleading labels at the grocery store."

USDA said it received more that 44,000 comments about the rule, while Consumers Union and FWW generated more than 36,000 signatures stating that the USDA's proposed standards for "naturally raised" were flawed, would only confuse consumers and should be withdrawn.

A national telephone poll conducted by Consumer Reports’ National Research Center released in November 2008 showed American consumers want the “naturally raised” meat claim to mean more than USDA's proposed standard, including that it came from an animal that:

• Had a diet free of chemicals, drugs and animal byproducts (86%)

• Was raised in a natural environment (85%)

• Ate a natural diet (85%)

• Was not cloned or genetically engineered (78%)

• Had access to the outdoors (77%)

• Was treated humanely (76%)

• Was not confined (68%)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Victory Garden 2.0

Ideas for Change in America is a nationwide competition to identify the best ideas for change in America. The top 10 ideas will be presented to the Obama administration just before inauguration day and form the basis of a nationwide advocacy campaign to turn each idea into actual policy. One of the more popular change ideas gaining traction is Victory Garden 2.0, who as of 01/08/09 held a top 30 spot (25th) with 1583 votes and needs 2380 more votes to make the top 10. Voting ends at 5pm ET on Thursday, January 15. From the site:
Thousands of Americans and people from the around the world are asking the Obamas to lead by example on climate change, health policy, economic self-reliance, food security, and energy independence by replanting an organic food garden at the White House with the produce going to the First Kitchen and to local food pantries.

The many successes of the first Victory Garden movement were the result of effective public policy, bold leadership at a time of national crisis, and the commitment of millions of citizens who were ready to roll up their sleeves for the greater good.

There's no better, more symbolic place for launching a new National Victory Garden Program than at the White House, "America’s House". There's no better, more urgent time than now. And there's NOTHING that can beat the fresh taste of locally grown, home-cooked foods.

1) Victory Gardens (behind homes, schools, in vacant urban lots, etc.) produced 40% of the nation’s produce at their peak, helped conserve food and natural resources at a time of crisis, resulted in the highest consumption rates of fruits and vegetables our nation has seen, and helped keep millions of Americans physically fit and active.

(2) First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt planted a Victory Garden on the White House lawn in1943 over the objections of the USDA, inspiring millions by her example.

(3) The UN estimates that 1 billion people will go hungry in 2009 while climate scientists predict this year will be one the five warmest years on record. --- For more on the campaign to grow some organic food at the White House, see: www.eattheview.org and www.thewhofarm.org
Eat The View has created some fun videos to watch including this one that characterizes the history of the White House grounds.

The Garden of Eatin': A Short History of America's Garden
from roger doiron on Vimeo.

The Victory Garden 2.0 idea has endorsements from nonprofits and bloggers as well, including: The Backward Future, The Fulbright Academy of Science and Technology, the UK's Wholesome Food Association, ecoyear, The Garden Klog, Kitchen Gardeners International and Tuft's own New Entry Sustainable Farming Project.