Wednesday, March 21, 2012

CDC research shows outbreaks linked to imported foods increasing

The US currently imports about 16% of food consumed. For seafood, that figure is about 85%. Currently about 1% of imported food is checked by the FDA at the port of entry. Over a 5 year period (2005 to 2010), there have been 39 outbreaks and close to 2400 illnesses linked to imported foods.

While we get a glimpse of the risk associated with imported foods through outbreak reports, it is hard to really know the true extent. FDA has limited capabilities, especially with import analysis, although the Food Safety Modernization Act includes measures which will help support FDA.

Much of it comes down to making sure those who import those food products. Are they doing what they need to do to ensure their foreign suppliers have capable food safety systems in place? Are they conducting verification testing?

As consumers, we try to by local where we can, but there is still demand to have an assortment of fruits, vegetables and seafood year round. And do we do ourselves a disservice by forgoing these items just because it is from another county in that we are giving up important components of a healthy diet?

CDC research shows outbreaks linked to imported foods increasing
Fish and spices the most common sources
March 14, 2012

 Foodborne disease outbreaks caused by imported food appeared to rise in 2009 and 2010, and nearly half of the outbreaks implicated foods imported from areas which previously had not been associated with outbreaks, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, presented today at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in Atlanta.

Lean Finely Textured Beef ( AKA Pink Slime) is safe

It is hard to miss the hysteria around so called ‘pink slime’, or to be technically correct , lean finely texturized beef, or LFTB. LFTB is basically meat protein that is recovered from fat trimmings that would have otherwise been lost. In the process of butchering a cow, fat is trimmed away. In trimming, it is hard to get only fat with no meat protein attached. The LFTB process was developed to separate that meat protein from the fat. Ammonium hydroxide is used as a processing aid to keep microbial levels in control.

The meat protein that is generated is finely ground, so it appears more as a paste than what we would call meat. Is it safe? Like any meat product, as long as it is cooked correctly, it is safe. The ammonium hydroxide is a GRAS (generally recognized as safe) chemical and when used at these very low levels, poses no health risk.

The issue is primarily related to the appearance, and once it was dubbed pink slime, it became difficult for consumers to accept. Because of this, many fast food chains discontinued its use (it was added in a small percentage to give more burger for the dollar.) Meat provided for school systems also buy beef with LFTB as a way to keep the cost of food down. Granted, it is not very appealing to look at. But neither are many other food ingredients when seen being used in food production. And, it is a process that recovers value from the byproducts, instead of wasting it.

Dr. Mills of Penn State Animal Science provides some nice comments regarding LFTB.

Here is a link that reviews the safety of ammonium hydroxide.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Cola, BPA, and Our Aversion to Risk

Recently, Campbell Soup made the decision to move away from cans that contain BPA the lining. Was it justified? FDA initially concluded that BPA was not a risk, but after public pressure, they are reevaluating its safety.

 Another controversy brewing is the caramel color that gives cola soft drinks their brown color. The chemical, 4-methylimidazole (4-MI), is formed when the caramel color is manufactured. According the FDA, the levels found in soda are well below any concern. The FDA spokesman, Doug Karas stated "A consumer would have to consume well over a thousand cans of soda a day to reach the doses administered in the studies that have shown links to cancer in rodents”. However, the consumer watchdog group, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), doesn’t agree. They have petitioned FDA to have 4-MI banned.

 How do the risks associated with certain chemicals in our food stack up against non-food related risks? For the consumer, this question is difficult to answer. In evaluating the risk associated with a chemical, numerous studies are completed. The scientists issue reports and from these reports, numerous interpretations are made, including ones by industry associations, consumer advocacy groups, and government agencies. Then some of these interpretations make their way to the consumer, either through the mass media (TV, newsprint) or through social media (websites, blogs). 

The studies that are conducted to determine risk are rarely perfect. Animal models, where large quantities are injected into small animals such as rats, are often used for toxicity determinations. With these, there is always a question of how realistic it is when compared to humans and their normal living conditions. When large scale human surveys are used to determine risk, it is often difficult to control all of the variables including what people eat, their daily habits, and their genetic makeup. In the end, we hope that conclusions that are drawn are done are unbiased and done in the best interest of the public.

 Public opinion polls have been done that show that that is an increasing concern in the consumers’ perception of food hazards. The apparent lack of trust on these technical risk assessments and this can be linked to a number of factors. One is the stories that are reported in the news media and how they are reported. In addition to television and print news, many people now use the internet for their information. On the internet, we see the whole gamut of information, from the scientific studies themselves to the totally unscientific opinion pieces. 

One of the primary fears that people have is cancer. Certainly past tragedies provide an underpinning for the public’s concern. Asbestos and tobacco are two examples of cancer related items that have received a high level of media coverage and have led to people being skeptical. So when a linkage is made between a chemical in food and cancer in the news or the media, it will get attention. The question of the level of risk, however, is often more difficult to discern. 

How should one respond? First, consumers should inform themselves as best they can by using valid sources of information. It is also important to understand the bias of those providing the information, and try to obtain a balance in what is read. Remember that the information out there is rarely clear cut, so it is important for consumers to make a determination where they feel comfortable.


Monday, March 5, 2012

Social Media Taking Over for Mom

The Progressive Grocer discusses a study" Clicks & Cravings: The Impact of Social Technology on Food Culture, which finds social/digital media is replacing Mom as the go-to culinary source of knowledge for many people."  These surveys are great references - we sense that more people are using social media as a tool for deciding what to eat, how to prepare it, and then chatting about it with others, but here is a study to support those notions.

"The study was jointly developed and conducted by consumer research firm The Hartman Group and Publicis Consultants USA, a food and nutrition marketing agency. Study results show almost half of consumers learn about food via social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, and 40 percent learn about food via websites, apps or blogs."

Impact on food safety - the internet is the wild west of information, where anyone can write anything.  It is alway important for people to use trusted sites, and to review information provided in that recipe against validated information ( for example).  If a recipe suggests that you undercook an item, for example to cook chicken to 150F instead of 165F, you should consider not using that recipe.