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Friday, February 29, 2008

The Jungle: Modern Day's Food Horrors

Ann-Marie Luciano

The recall last week of more than 143 million pounds of beef distributed by the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. of Chino, California is having ripple effects throughout the country, including Maryland. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, St. Mary's County and Charles County school officials have reported having received the recalled beef products, some of which already may have been consumed by students.

This recall -- the largest beef recall in U.S. history -- raises larger questions about the food supply and what the government is and is not doing to protect it. The USDA, which authorizes recalls of meat and poultry products, has issued five such recalls already in 2008, in addition to 58 recalls in 2007. This leaves us - the consumers - with a big question: What can we do to ensure the safety of the food we eat?

I find this to be a daunting question. We are constantly bombarded with stories about how certain foods and food addititives are either unhealthy or out right harmful, causing anything from ADHD to cancer. On February 20, 2008, The Collaborative on Health and the Environment's Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative published a "Scientific Consensus Statement on Environmental Agents Associated with Neurodevelopmental Disorder," which found that artificial food colors and additives can cause conduct disorders and have been shown in studies to cause increased hyperactivity in three-year-old children.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer also recently reported on a peer-reviewed study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, (funded by the Environmental Protection Agency), which found that the urine and saliva of children eating a variety of conventional foods contained biological markers of organophosphates from pesticides.

The good news is that when the children switched from conventional foods to organic foods, the traces of pesticides were not found. According to Chensheng Lu, the author of the study and a Professor at Emory University's School of Public Health, "Once you switch from conventional food to organic, the pesticides (malathion and chlorpyrifos) that we can measure in the urine disappears. The level returns immediately when you go back to the conventional diets." The article includes a helpful chart listing the amount of pesticides detected in common produce.

Such news leaves me bewildered. Walking the aisles of the grocery store, I sometimes find my head spinning with questions: Organic? Free-range? Cage-free? "All-natural" Locally-grown? I usually end up leaving the store with a mix of confusion after reading labels that I don't understand and guilt for buying the food anyway. So, how does one make heads or tails of all of this information? The following definitions may help:

Organic: The National Organic Program of the USDA regulates the standards for food that is labeled as "organic." Organic food is food that is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. Beginning on October 21, 2002, any producer or handler who wants to sell, label, or represent their products as "100 percent organic," "organic," or "made with organic [specified ingredients or food group(s)]" must be certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent. Contrary to conventional thinking (no pun intended), the The National Organic Program of the USDA states that the term "organic" is not synomous with "GM-free " or "natural."

Free Range or Free Roaming: In order for a producer to label a poultry product (the term does not apply to beef or pork) as "free range" or "free roaming," the USDA requires that the producers demonstrate that the poultry has been allowed "access to the outside."

Natural: This label may be applied to products containing no artificial ingredients or added color. The products may only be minimally processed. The label must explain the use of the term nature (e.g., "no added colorings" or "no artificial ingredients").

No Antibiotics: This term may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if there is sufficient documentation provided to the USDA demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics.

See: for more information.

Some say that despite federal regulations, the use of labels isn't enforced adequately so you never really know if what you see is what you get. Given all of the recent food and toy recalls and the myriad of stories about the hidden chemicals within our food, I find that being my own advocate by getting informed is the only way I can feel in control over my own food safety.


Anonymous said...

Well written and on totally on point. Thanks for doing the researh!

Peter Paris, Esq. said...

Food safety, or lack thereof, is a very important issue. Thanks for raising it in your thoughtful essay. I would only add that we need to continue to keep pressure on the USDA to strengthen the requirements for saying one's product is free-range, organic, etc. If we elect Barack Obama, I'm sure he'll help us out in this, and every other important issue!!!

Unknown said...

I had no idea that there were studies actually showing benefits of eating organic. It's too bad that you need to make tons of $ to afford it.