Mercury, Salmonella and Nitrates, Oh My
It’s been quite a week for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). I had planned to write about organic farming as the next installment of our Sustainable Family Supper Project, but got waylaid reading everything I could get my hands (or mouse) on about the latest high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) shocker. (Check back Monday for the kick-off of Save Our Farms week.) I wanted to find something constructive to write about that would not encourage you all to just throw up your hands and give up, which frankly I have been tempted to do myself.
Just to review, the nation’s largest recall, of peanut products from a plant who knowingly shipped contaminated products, has evoked this encouraging response from the FDA: “‘I don’t think we can determine how many more’ products will be recalled, [said] Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the Center for Food Safety.” Even worse, Sandlof doesn’t see the flaw in a system that puts responsibility on producers to essentially police themselves, asserting,
“[I]t is the responsibility of the industry to produce safe product. The FDA is not in plants on a continuous basis. We do rely on inspections to find problems when they exist. … We expect individual citizens to obey the law. And occasionally people don’t obey the law. And when they don’t obey the law then the responsibility of the regulatory authorities to take the appropriate enforcement action.”
In outside studies – goodness knows the FDA doesn’t have the resources or inclination to proactively study the toxicity of our food supply – measurable levels of mercury were found in name-brand, HFCS-containing products ranging from ketchup to chocolate syrup and yogurt, and a Taiwanese study showed a significant increase in the risk of childhood leukemia in children who consumed more than one nitrate-preserved meat product per week (e.g., bacon, hot dogs, deli meat).
The thing about the HFCS-mercury link, which the corn industry was predictably quick to claim was insignificant, is that it is entirely avoidable and unnecessary. Manufacturing technology exists, and is already widely used in Europe and the US, that does not impart a touch of mercury into our food products. Mercury gets into our bodies and environment from many sources, and it is the cumulative effect of the toxin over our lifetime that is of concern. There is no point quibbling over whether the amounts in HFCS are themselves significant, when it is a preventable increase in our lifetime of exposure. (You will, no doubt, be relieved to know that mercury is naturally-occurring, so the fact that it is introduced to those natural genetically-modified corn kernels as they are processed by genetically-engineered enzymes to produce all-natural high fructose corn syrup shouldn’t jeopardize the corn refiners’ FDA approval to market HFCS as “natural.”) As other concerned parents have noted, it’s virtually impossible to avoid HFCS if you don’t have the time or resources to buy only organic products and cook every meal from scratch. Shouldn’t the FDA at the very least require that manufacturers notify consumers what they may be consuming?
What can concerned parents and foodies do in the face of constant alarming news reports?
A. Eat less processed foods. Yogurt, fruit juice, bread – none of these need HFCS. Consumer demand switching to organics/natural sweeteners has the corn industry panicked; let’s keep it that way.
B. Ask your legislators to join Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in calling for a new Food Safety Administration. Food & Water Watch has a webform set up to email your representatives to ask them to cosponsor DeLauro’s “Food Safety Modernization Act,” which would streamline food safety oversight and increase inspections. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a significant step in the right direction — a safer food supply for all.
Alright, enough doom and gloom for one day. Check out The Green Parent’s “Green and Healthy Super Bowl Snacks,” and enjoy the weekend!
[Update: I noticed in reading the blogs that pro-HFCS Google ads were popping up, and sure enough there's one on my post. I'm torn between blocking it and letting them waste more of their marketing money, so for now it's up.]