Archive for the ‘News’ Category

Swine flu continues unabated

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

The past two days have seen a substantial increase in swine flu cases, with the state of Illinois announcing 555 cases on Tuesday. That count was 67 more than Monday’s total—a 14% increase in one day. Meanwhile, Cuba, Finland and Thailand announced their first cases yesterday. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of 06:00 GMT Tuesday, 33 countries have officially reported 5728 cases of influenza A(H1N1) infection. (more…)

Meat recall exec admits cattle were illegally slaughtered

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

Today, Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. President Steve Mendell finally admitted that cattle were illegally slaughtered at his plant and that cows too sick to stand were forced into the food supply. Mendell had originally maintained in a written statement to a congressional committee investigating the largest meat recall scandal in U.S. history that the sick cattle filmed in an underground video by the American Humane Society were being moved to a separate pen to be euthanized.

However, today Mendell acknowledged under direct questioning by Representative Bart Stupak (D, MI) that those cattle did indeed enter the food supply.

Mendell was appearing under subpoena before the House Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee, which Rep. Stupak chairs. He failed to appear at a committee hearing last month.

The Westland/Hallmark Meat Co.’s Chino, California plant was shut down February 17 and 143 million pounds of beef recalled after the Humane Society posted the video on its website. According to the Associated Press, some 50 million pounds of the beef went to federal nutrition programs, mostly school lunches.

The AP report quoted Mendell as saying, “Our company is ruined. We cannot continue. Some 220 employees have lost or are about to lose their jobs.”

View the Humane Society video that led to the recall of Westland/Hallmark Meats, along with portions of the Mendell questioning before Congress

Read the recall notice from Westland/Hallmark Meat Co.

Ban on toxic toys gets Senate nod

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

If final bill remains unchanged, phthalates will be banned from toys and child-care products

Proposed legislation introduced early last week by Dianne Feinstein (D, CA) to ban phthalates from toys and other products intended to be used around children passed a Senate vote later in the week, on March 6. The amendment to the Consumer Product Safety Commission Reform Act was hailed by Jeanne Rizzo, R.N., executive director of the Breast Cancer Fund, which had sought public support for the measure.

“We applaud Senator Feinstein’s leadership to protect our children from dangerous substances,” Rizzo said in a statement. “This legislation will … give parents the peace of mind that they are not inadvertently giving their children toys that may expose them to unsafe chemicals linked to dangerous health consequences.”

Phthalates are commonly used as plasticizers—in this case, chemicals that convert polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from a rigid to a flexible form of plastic. They are likely to be found in all forms of flexible plastics, from rubber ducks to sex toys.

Since the House and the Senate now have different versions of the reform legislation, they must appoint a conference committee to work out a single version of the bill. Readers are urged to contact their congressional representatives to urge them to see that the ban on phthalates is included in the final version.

Passage of the CPSC Reform Act with the Senate’s version of the amendment would put the United States in the company of the state of California and at least 32 nations, including those of the European Union, in banning phthalates from children’s products.

Unfortunately, since regulations in the United States do not require labeling of products containing potentially toxic substances, prior to this legislative ban there was no possible way for parents to be certain which toys were or were not phthalate-free. If the final legislation remains unchanged, parents will be assured of being able to select phthalate-free toys.

Drug industry battles for doctors’ time

Monday, January 21st, 2008

If you’re looking to see a doctor, bring lunch. That’s one of the finding in a recent article on doctors and drug-company reps published in the latest AARP Bulletin (Ties that Bind, by Barbara Basler).

We found some interesting figures there, figures that otherwise seem to go unpublicized. For example, the pharmaceutical industry’s spending on direct marketing to doctors rose 275% from 1996 to 2004 and currently stands around $7 billion. That doesn’t count prescription samples given to doctors at an annual industry cost of $18 billion. And yes, buying lunch for doctors and their staffs are one of the main rites of entry. That makes doctors no different from, say, editors or purchasing agents.

But statistics from inside the industry itself show that if a rep gets to spend just one minute with a doctor, that doctor will write prescriptions for that rep’s drug at a 16 percent higher rate. Give the rep five minutes, and prescriptions increase 52 percent. Since primary-care physicians interact on average 28 times a week with drug sales reps, we’re looking at a huge increase in drug prescriptions that is up for grabs. And none of this is necessarily good for the patient.

In fact, it’s become such a problem that states such as Pennsylvania and South Carolina
have begun hiring their own reps to go out and counteract the pharmaceutical industry’s propaganda. It is worthwhile for them to do this simply to assure better patient outcomes, since newer drugs—the ones being pushed aggressively by the industry—are also the most expensive drugs, but not necessarily the best drugs for the patient. A beneficial side effect is a reduction in the cost of drug subsidies to patients.

Pennsylvania’s “unsales” program, while costing $3 million over three years, has so far saved state programs about $572,000 a year in prescriptions for stomach-acid suppression alone.

For while doctors naively proclaim themselves not for sale, industry figures such as those already quoted indicate they are readily influenced. Just last year a poll published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed 94 percent of doctors reporting “direct ties” to the dug industry.

Alarmed by such figures, some state legislatures have begun to fight back, trying to restrict the industry’s antics, but pharmaceutical companies are aggressive in defense of what they regard as their territory.

For example, New Hampshire passed a law in 2006 prohibiting drug companies from purchasing information about doctors’ prescribing habits. The industry got the law overturned in federal court a year later. Similar laws passed by Maine and Vermont are being challenged in court.

And last year, 17 states drafted legislation to regulate gifts to doctors and require their disclosure.

Not one of those bills became law.

BPA levels in canned infant formula pose higher risk than baby bottles

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

(Source: the Environmental Working Group) – Many new parents are aware that the toxic chemical Bisphenol-A (BPA) leaches from plastic baby bottles found on the shelves of stores across America. But a new investigation by Environmental Working Group (EWG) reveals that BPA is also used to line nearly all infant formula cans. Indeed, the BPA levels found in liquid formula are likely to be far higher than those that leach from plastic baby bottles under normal use.

The EWG contacted company officials at Nestlé, Ross-Abbot (Similac), MeadJohnson (Enfamil), Hain-Celestial (Earth’s Best), and PBM (sold under various names at Walmart, Kroger, Target and other stores). Each company’s policy was documented a minimum of three times; twice through detailed phone interviews, and once by an e-mail questionnaire. The results reveal that all manufacturers use BPA to line the metal portions of all infant formula containers, including powdered varieties.

“Many parents have switched to BPA-free bottles for their infants. They certainly should have access to BPA-free formula as well,” said Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst with EWG. “U.S. manufacturers of infant formula and baby bottles can and should do the right thing and remove this harmful chemical from their products.”

“There is mounting scientific evidence that BPA is toxic, especially to children,” said Aaron Freeman, Policy Director with Environmental Defence. “Governments should be acting quickly, starting with a ban on BPA in food and beverage containers.” Previous formula testing by EWG and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has shown that BPA leaches from the plastic lining of metal cans into liquid formula, exposing formula-fed babies to potentially harmful concentrations that are higher than levels leaching from the bottles.

BPA levels in powdered formula sold in the United States haven’t been tested, but this formula is diluted with water before being fed to babies, and thus poses less risk. In light of these findings, EWG has created an online guide for parents to help them make the most informed decisions about how they feed their babies.

Children exposed daily to untested personal-care products

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

(Source: Environmental Working Group) – From baby shampoo to diaper wipes, children are exposed every day to products containing chemicals that have not been assessed for their hazards to children, according to an investigation by Environmental Working Group (EWG) of children’s personal-care products. In an online survey of more than 3,300 parents, EWG found that the average child is exposed through body-care products to 27 chemicals a day that have not been found safe for children, including some associated with cancer, brain and nervous system damage, allergies and hormone disruption.

In fact, these chemicals are common ingredients in baby shampoo, lotion, diaper cream, sunscreen, and other body care products sold for use by chidren. “Children are more at risk than adults from many chemical hazards, but we have no special standards to protect them,” said Jane Houlihan, EWG’s vice president for research.

Children are typically more vulnerable to chemicals than adults. A child’s skin is 30 percent thinner than an adult’s, and can absorb greater amounts of chemicals from the skin surface. Children breathe in more air (and air pollution) relative to their weight than adults, and the blood-brain barrier that helps block chemicals from penetrating brain tissue is not fully formed until a baby is six months old. Even then, many chemicals cross this barrier and target developing brain tissue, with potential life-long harmful effects.

According to EWG findings,

  • 82% of children are exposed every week to one or more ingredients with the potential to harm the brain and nervous system.
  • 69% of children are exposed every week to one or more ingredients that may disrupt the hormone system, and 3.6% of children are exposed to ingredients with strong data linking them to cancer, including chemicals classified as known or probable human carcinogens.
  • 80% of children’s products marked as gentle and non-irritating contain ingredients linked to allergies and skin or eye irritation according to government and industry sources.

The safety of baby products falls under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, unlike the situation for drugs and food additives, the FDA has no power to require that cosmetics be tested for safety before they are sold. And due to other loopholes in the law, manufacturers are free to make any claims they wish, such as “safe” and “ultra mild,” without proof, and many do just that.

“In the absence of adequate regulation, the manufacturers of children’s products should take responsibility to inform and protect their customers,” said Michael Passoff, associate director of the As You Sow Foundation, which supported the study. As You Sow represents shareholders in engaging publicly held companies to adopt more progressive social and environmental policies

“Something shouldn’t be marketed to kids if it’s not proven safe for them,” said Passoff.

Concerned parents should consult EWG’s comprehensive Safety Guide to Children’s Personal Care Products.

Study shows children need more than 9 hours of sleep

Monday, November 5th, 2007

A new study from the University of Michigan published in the November issue of Pediatrics found that children aged 9 to 12 who sleep less than nine hours a night are more likely to be overweight. Their risk of gaining weight was accompanied by other negative risk factors such as moodiness and a lack of alertness in school, according to primary study author Dr. Julie Lumeng.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that elementary school children receive 10 to 12 hours of sleep a night. Getting less sleep not only affects the children’s tendency to feel energetic and play outdoors, it also affects their hormone levels, which can lead to increased fat storage and an impaired tolerance for glucose. These same risk factors have been shown by other research to lead to increased weight and a tendency toward diabetes and heart disease in later life.

National Cancer Institute: vitamin D does not prevent cancer deaths

Sunday, November 4th, 2007

Just when vitamin D was beginning to look like the cure-all where cancer is concerned—many studies have proclaimed it instrumental in preventing or slowing cancers of the skin, colon, breast, and prostate, to name a few—a new study announced by the U.S. National Cancer Institute says increased vitamin D consumption does not correlate with reduced cancer mortality. The one exception, according to the study’s authors, may be cancer of the colon.

The study did not involve new research. Rather, it analyzed data for 16,818 subjects who participated in the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which inducted participants between 1988 and 1994 and followed them through 2000. Participants were given blood tests to establish a baseline at the beginning of their enrollment; it was from these blood tests that the level of vitamin D (as 25-hydroxyvitamin D) was tested against decreased cancer mortality and found to be lacking. In the case of colorectal cancer, however, the study found a 72 percent reduced risk of death when vitamin D levels were sufficiently high.

The study, authored by D. Michal Freedman, Ph.D., of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., and colleagues, was published in this month’s Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The authors believe it is the first study to test vitamin D blood levels—as opposed to supplement consumption—against cancer mortality.

Farmers call for suspension of so-called “Seed Treaty”

Saturday, November 3rd, 2007

Farmers’ organizations at a meeting on the treaty governing the exchange of crop seeds for research and plant breeding, hosted in Rome by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), told the assembled government representatives late Thursday that the treaty ought to be suspended.

Speaking on behalf of 30 farmers’ and other civil society organizations, Ibrahima Coulibaly of the Regional Farmers’ Organization of West Africa (ROPPA) said, “the treaty must halt the exchange of crop germplasm.”

“Germplasm,” in this case, refers to the plant genetic material contained in seeds. For farmers, seeds represent the biodiversity of natural crops that they have nurtured and bred over centuries.

What’s more, the African farm leader concluded, “the suspension should remain in effect until governments meet the minimal obligations of the Treaty, including its core financial arrangements.”

This second meeting of the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) began last Monday, October 29 and finished Friday, November 2. The Treaty is sometimes referred to as “The Law of the Seed.”

However, the Governing Body has been rendered almost completely ineffective, since its 115 member governments have been unable to find the $4.9 million necessary to keep the lights on in its Secretariat, much less to maintain the fundamental monitoring mechanisms that might ensure equitable sharing of the benefits acquired in exchange for the seeds donated to research. Attendees charge that governments have also failed to commit the necessary funding to support in situ (on-farm) seed conservation or for building crop capacity in the global South. They point out that these latter programs are not in the best interests of the multinationals holding the other side of the Treaty.

Many attendees of the meeting were visibly angry, charging that the Treaty had become purely an acquisition mechanism for multinational seed companies, with the supposed reciprocal benefits for farmers and developing nations completely ignored.

“We are faced with the greatest case of institutional biopiracy ever seen,” said Andrew Mushita of the Community Biodiversity Development and Conservation Network (a network of conservation programs in 21 countries). “In effect, governments are now enabling multinational seed companies to impose a legally-binding regime that forces the exchange of farmers’ seeds without reciprocal benefits,” said Mushita, who also addressed the governments Friday.

Another civil society representative at the meeting, Wilhelmina Pelegrina from the Phillipines-based Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE), added, “We also expect the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) to suspend its germplasm exchanges in order to remain compliant with the spirit of the Treaty.” Eleven institutes of the CGIAR have distributed 100,000 seed samples under the terms of the Treaty so far this year. “We hope the suspension will be temporary and governments will come to their senses quickly,” said Pelegrina.

The reciprocal benefits mentioned were supposed to be an integral part of the Treaty. Indeed, negotiations for the Treaty began in the mid-1990s because scientific researchers and multinational plant breeders were experiencing a substantial decline in their access to vital breeding material. Scientists and farmers, particularly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, were denying requests for seed from northern “breeders” because private companies were taking farmers’ varieties and patenting them. Farmers resented providing the seeds just to bolster the multinationals’ profits, and regarded the patenting of seeds they had developed as outright theft.

As the decline in seed exchange appeared to be threatening world food security, governments decided to act. After seven years of acrimonious negotiations, they hammered out a Treaty that included provisions for Farmers’ Rights and is supposed to guarantee an equitable flow of financial benefits to developing countries. Without funding for core administrative services, however, farmers and developing countries have no confidence that there is equity in the system.

According to Pat Mooney of ETC Group, headquartered in Canada, who also attended the meeting, “The global seed industry has annual commercial sales of $23 billion. Beginning in the 1970s, multinational pesticide enterprises began buying seed companies.

“Today,” Mooney said, “the top 10 seed companies have 57% of the commercial seed trade. Last year, a single company’s biotech seeds and traits—Monsanto’s—accounted for 86% of the total worldwide area devoted to genetically modified seeds.”

These multinational gene giants, critics charge, are the major beneficiaries under the current Treaty environment. But some attendees also blame participating governments for current woes.

“It’s not all governments,” said Guy Kastler, Via Campesina/Europe “the real biopirates at this meeting are France, Germany and Australia. These governments are making it impossible for the international community to fulfill its Treaty obligations. Although their seed industries are major beneficiaries of the Treaty, these three countries haven’t contributed a penny to the Treaty’s operations and they are actively blocking negotiations here.”

Representatives from farmers’ organizations —who are attending the meeting at FAO’s invitation but at their own expense—sat stunned Thursday as governments refused to discuss the proposed program of work for the Treaty. According to a press release from organizers, even the most contentious issues passed by without comment.

Farmers undertake the overwhelming majority of the world’s seed conservation and plant breeding. This was confirmed Tuesday when the representative of the Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties (UPOV), the Geneva-based intergovernmental body that oversees intellectual property related to plant varieties, reported that breeders had only “protected” 70,000 varieties in recent decades. Farmers breed and adapt more than one million varieties every year.

“If negotiations collapse at FAO,” said Maria Elza Gomez from a Brazilian small farmers’ organization, “the matter might move to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, whose scientific subcommittee will meet at FAO in Rome in February 2008.

“Governments and FAO could lose control of the Treaty to a different UN body. This would be a serious mistake: the control over seeds—the first link in the food chain—would be left [to] a bunch of environmentalists who know nothing about agriculture.”

[Editor's Note: to see Dan Rather's thought-provoking coverage of the U.S. Farm Bill, click here.]

USDA blames Canadian firm for E. coli outbreak

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

An expanded recall on September 29 of 21.7 million tons of beef resulted in the bankruptcy a week later of 67-year-old Topps Meat, the largest U.S. maker of frozen beef patties. Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the contagion was likely caused by beef from Ranchers Beef Ltd of Balzac, Alberta, Canada, a company that had ceased operation citing insolvency just a month before.

Nearly 100 people in the U.S. and Canada were sickened by the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, while the recall itself was the second largest in U.S. history.

The chain of events illustrates–with considerable irony–the problems inherent in establishing a farmer’s cooperative under a food distribution system that consolidates control by increasingly centralized producers, processors and distributors within a framework in which adequate inspection and food safety are frequently brushed aside.

The irony is that Ranchers Beef was a new co-op formed by ranchers attempting to overcome exploitation at the hands of centralized packing houses by marketing their own beef.

According to an article run by the Canadian National Post on August 22, just a week after the 14-month-old co-op closed, Ranchers Beef was “christened the Cadillac of food safety in a post-mad-cow era, capable of tracking each bovine as it journeyed from the truck, through the plant, to its end in a box of beef.” One investor claimed that Ranchers Beef was “the only plant eligible to ship to Europe” in all of North America.

The U. S. Food Safety and Inspection Service delisted Ranchers Beef as an importer on October 20. U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Richard Raymond said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) provided pulse field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) patterns—a form of genetic fingerprinting—from Ranchers Beef products that “helped us determine a likely source of contaminated product which led to the September 29 Topps Meat expanded recall.”

Ranchers Beef was not the first Canadian co-op-style meatpacker to close in recent history. In February, Ranchers Choice Beef Co-op Ltd in Dauphin, Manitoba had decided to cease operation under similar financial constraints.

Observers site the U.S. Farm Bill currently working its way through the Senate as a possible mechanism of correcting a food distribution system that increasingly crowds out smaller farmers and ranchers in favor of industrial-style production facilities. While consumers continue paying higher prices for beef and other farm products, smaller farmers and ranchers are under increasing pressure to quit the business, usually by selling out to conglomerates.

That such a large distributor as Topps Meat should be brought down by the recall illustrates yet another irony of the current system: because meat products are intermingled on such a grand scale without prior testing for safety, when a problem does arise, the resulting recall is farm more extensive than it would have been had a smaller batch been distributed on a local level.

What’s more, according to the National Post, Ranchers Beef plans to market premium beef tested for bovine spongioform encephalopathy (BSE), were disallowed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. That a plant designed for preventing and tracking BSE should be blamed for an E. coli outbreak, which is caused by poor sanitary procedures during slaughtering, was just one more painful bit of irony.

[Editor's Note: We used to have a link to Dan Rather's thought-provoking coverage of the U.S. Farm Bill on video. However, that video no longer appears to be posted for free. To read a transcript of that report in PDF format, click here. To search for a reference to the original clip, try]