Tuesday, September 15, 2009


A life-long foodie asked me a few days ago what I thought would be the next big outbreak in our food supply. He was right. It is going to happen - soon. It is not a question of whether we will have another large-scale case of contamination, but when we will have it and what
the cause will be.

If I was betting on outbreaks instead of the stock market, I would probably choose one of the deadly bacteria. Three or four years ago, I might said it would be E.coli 0157. H7. - Not the 'good' kind of E.coli bacteria that helps us to digest our food, but the kind that produces very dangerous toxins and totally ruins our intestines for years to come. That is, if it does not kill us. As bad as Shigella dysenteriae. I should know. I have been hospitalized with both of these deadly bacteria and almost died from the hemorrhagic colitis they produced. No fun.

E.coli 0157:H7 has quite frequently cropped up in America's fresh produce (yes, some of imported from our trading partners,but also produce grown locally) like alfa-alfa, lettuce, unpasteurized cider and apple juice, ground meat, raw milk, and other products. One of the recent large outbreaks (June, 2009) was a multi-state one in refrigerated pre-packaged cookie dough. Most of those who became seriously ill were in the age range of 2 to 19. (Guess who eats raw cookie dough...).

Two or three years ago, I would probably have laid my money on the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes, because such a high percentage of food industry workers carry it. Estimates vary, but let's say around 30-40% and increasing. Some people carry it but have no symptoms. It is also often living happily in our soil, irrigation and other water, wild animals and vegetation. This is the bacterium that is so deadly for pregnant women, people with HIV/AIDS and anyone else with a compromised immune systems. Almost a third of the infections are fatal. The greatest threat from L. monocytogenes comes from ready-to-eat foods, that we eat as they come from the store (cooking would kill the bacteria). Some recent outbreaks have been in raw cheeses, cooked crabs, smoked fish and tuna sandwiches (see the alerts).

But these days, I would probably bet on one of the salmonella sp. causing the next outbreak. It may not seem as deadly as E.coli 0157:H7, or L. monocytogenes, but it is becoming very, very common. Only about 2-3% of cases are ever reported (that is, enter the system as linked to this bacteria in food), so there is much more related illness around than we are aware of. Salmonella seems to survive everywhere. Look at some of the outbreak alerts over the last few months - ground meat, green onions, parsley, tahini and more, Of course, the peanut outbreak that originated in the PCA plant in Georgia, and then the one in Texas, is still around too. It even likes to set up home in red pepper. What next? An outbreak in coffee? I can give up red pepper for a while - if I must - but not my coffee....

bon appetit!


Friday, September 11, 2009


Living in California, you would think it was easy to eat local produce - particularly fresh local vegetables, like lettuce, spinach, green onions, tomatoes. So much of it is grown right here. So what's the problem?

Remember those green onions that were recalled recently because they were found to be contaminated with salmonella bacteria ? Well, we thought they were grown in Salinas, right, because they were distributed by Steinbeck Country Produce, based in Salinas, California. Well, that's not quite the case. It turns out that they were actually grown in Mexicali, Mexico - NEAR the California border, shipped to Salinas (unless I am wrong, some 449 miles away), packaged and then passed off as California grown produce. Nice....

This is rather disillusioning, particularly if you read the company's website - all that emphasis on food safety, 'California,' family owned business, and so on.

These onions were distributed in California, Massachusetts, Texas, Indiana, New York, Michigan, Missouri, Kansas and Arizona. By the way, the same Mexican onion grower also probably sold them to several other distributors.

The CEO of Steinbeck Country Produce made it all sound as though the company was bending over backwards to protect consumers. Quoting: "This recall is voluntary, based on a strong sense of caution for consumer well-being. Food safety is our primary concern at Steinbeck Country Produce, and this recall shows that our procedures are efficient, effective and immediate." Thanks a lot. Excuse me if I don't quite believe you. I suspect your grandfather may have felt that way, but now you have got too big and successful to really care.

To make matters worse, he added the usual meaningless statement: "Fortunately, there are not any reported illnesses at this time, and we will continue to respond quickly and efficient[ly?] to ensure consumer well being." How does he know there aren't any illnesses? Most cases are not diagnosed or reported. And it is very difficult to do a trace-back in a couple of weeks.

While he is at it, he could also pay attention to his grammar - or was that the FDA?

Bon appetit! (But don't trust the labels)


Monday, August 17, 2009


Not again! Another ground beef contamination. Now we have E.coli O157:H7 back in the news. I guess it was time. Salmonella bacteria have been hogging the headlines too much lately.

The USAID/FSIS has announced that Sterling Pacific Meat Co. of California, is recalling approximately 3,516 pounds of ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. By the way, most of this meat seems to have gone to food service establishments not to our grocery stores, so avoid eating ground beef meals in restaurants for a while until the government and the industry sort it all out.

But there is also a smaller beef recall due to E.coli O157:H7 which was sold directly to consumers. Pasha Halal Poultry, doing business as Marcacci Meats, is recalling approximately 128 pounds of ground beef products apparently distributed only in Vineland, N.J (as far as we know).

Well, as usual, it may be too late. The ground beef sold to the food industry was actually packaged in mid May..hmmm...some three months before the public alert came out. Great...The Vineland ground beef recall is more up-to-date as it was packaged on August 12.

But there are many alternatives if you like ground meat meals. As far as I know, ground veal has not been recalled. If you don't get upset about eating veal (which yes, is quite easy to do if you let yourself think about it), try my son's favorite veal dishes: ground veal, some chopped onions, bread crumbs, an egg or two, and garlic, salt, white pepper and herbs (tarragon, sage or parsley) to taste. Shape the mix like hamburgers and sautee slowly in olive oil. Serve with rice, orzo or mashed potatoes, and lots of those good vegetables (a 1 to 5 ratio is nice). You can make a light wine or sherry and cream sauce for them if you like, or, even eat them with ketchup on a roll. This veal dish is much cheaper than others, and makes great leftovers to be warmed up in the microwave. That is, if they don't all get eaten for midnight snacks as happens in our house.

Bon appetit,


Saturday, August 8, 2009


Now that I am back from killing myself cycling around Ireland, and have duly recovered from the swine flu (not really all that bad, considering...except that all your friends avoid you), I am catching up on the latest in food safety.

There it was in my mailbox...a ground beef recall. I caught the beginning of this latest food nightmare when I was leaving the country. I was not at all surprised to find out that it developed into a much bigger issue over the weeks. Not an unusual pattern for an outbreak in our food system.

Ground beef is the riskiest meat to eat - the most outbreaks and the most cases of illness. It is often made from the riskiest bits of meat to begin with, and the processing it goes through adds to the risks already there. Bacteria love it.There have been a number of bad outbreaks over the years, with large numbers of confirmed illnesses and many times more unconfirmed. But actually, things appeared better now than they were in 2000 and 2001. This may be changing.

And don't mistake the symptoms for swine flu. At least in my case, they were quite different - almost no diarrhea or cramps, just aches, fever, general misery....But on ballance, I think I'd rather have this than come down with Salmonella Newport from my burger.

Bon appetit!



Well, now it's beef's turn to come up contaminated with Salmonella bacteria. On August 6 the USDA announced that Beef Packers, Inc., based in Fresno, California, is recalling approximately 825,769 pounds of ground beef products that may be linked to an outbreak of salmonellosis. That is a whole lot of beef. The ground beef products were sent to retail distribution centers in Arizona, California, Colorado and Utah.

So, we just avoid eating it, right? No, unfortunately not, because we don't know what brand name they were sold under. The product was shipped in bulk, and then repackaged by other different companies into smaller packages with different names. Who knows what they all are. Besides, the 'use or freeze by' date has long expired. The meat was sent out on various dates in June, and the latest use-date was before mid-July. In other words, the chances are that it has already been eaten. That nasty bout of diarrhea, vomiting, fever etc. that you had a few weeks ago, that you thought was the 'flu - well, it could have been that medium-rare hamburger you ate (or, well-cooked one you made without using careful kitchen hygiene). To make matters worse, this is a particularly nasty member of the Salmonella family - Salmonella Newport because it is resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics. And that is not mentioning the risk of longer-term effects on our health, like arthritis and worse.

So, what do we do? Well, if you are presently eating in California, Arizona, Colorado or Utah, the safest approach is to only buy ground beef from a store that grinds up their own. Or, maybe skip eating any ground beef meals for a while altogether. Try a turkey-burger instead. It is better for you, and actually quite good, particularly if you throw some garlic and herbs on it, and maybe a pile of cream sherry-soaked sauteed red onions on top, served on an onion bagel...

Bon appetit,

Friday, June 26, 2009


Keeping up with frightening food events in our food supply is getting quite exhausting. One of the most annoying aspects is that just as you think you can forget about one of the outbreaks, you realize it is still out there. And contaminated products might still be out there too, waiting for us, innocent consumers, to pounce on them.

Take peanuts. The PCA incident that blanketed our country (and a few others) with salmonella-contaminated peanuts and peanut products should be well over by now. The plants have been shut down. More than 2,100 products in 17 categories have been voluntarily recalled by more than 200 companies, since January, 2009 (probably more, as the FDA information is at least a week or two out of date). Hundreds of people have become ill and some have died. But guess what, it's not over.

There have been more peanut product recalls in the last few days, including one yesterday. More or less ditto for pistachios. The most recent pistachio one - just four days ago. No wonder I could not get any at Trader Joe's on Wednesday when I wanted to make my usual favorite of herb cornish hen, stuffed with raisins and pistachios (I settled for pine nuts instead).

But back to peanuts. Yesterday's recall really illustrates the oddity of our so-called food safety system. Nuts for You of Preston ID is recalling Roasted and Salted Peanuts manufactured with peanuts bought from PCA. The product was distributed between March 15, 2008 and Jan 15, 2009.The sell-by date on the plastic bag of 'Nuts for You' was Feb 18, 2009 (more than four months ago) . Presumably the nuts were purchased sometime in 2007 from PCA's Texas plant to make these cute bags of salted peanuts sold at gift stores.

So here we are on June 25, asking consumers to send back products made of antique nuts (maybe two years old) that are well and truly expired and, are very likely to have also been well and truly eaten. The really bad news is that this type of pattern is not unusual.

Nuts to you, FDA. How are we supposed to escape bad food in America?

bon appetit!


Monday, June 15, 2009


Well, it happened before I got down to writing on it. 'Swine Flu,' which is really not really the pure porcine variety, but a 'novel' type of Influenza A (H1N1) has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. Americans are anticipating a huge immunization campaign in late September and traders are happily buying shares of all the companies promising to have masses of the vaccine ready by then. At least 3 companies are at the field trial stage with their vaccines. Meanwhile, there are some great scam vaccines being sold over the Internet.

Many schools are still shut down, people are nervous, and the number of illnesses keeps growing. From April 15, 2009 to July 24, 2009, a total of 43,771 confirmed and probable cases of infection were reported in 53 states, DC and Puerto Rico. Of these cases reported, 5,011 people were hospitalized and 302 people died. On July 24, 2009, the CDC gave up counting. According to one model it developed, which takes underreporting, lack of testing and other such factors into account, there have most likely been around a million cases of this flu in the U.S. between April and June.

I was one of them. No, it wasn't much fun. But frankly, not that bad either. I've had worse. And while it is reputed to be very contagious, my husband did not get it. Nor did my friends.

To the main issue: the question in many peoples’ minds has been whether one could get this unpleasant flu from eating pork or pork products. The answer is 'NO' - well, at least, not from pork.

The markets certainly have seemed to think so. Because there had been a number of cases of ‘swine flu’ in the U.S., and more were expected, U.S. hog prices and even the value of shares in meat companies fell as a result. Several countries banned U.S. pork and there was fear that more would join in.

The FDA ,the CDC and other government and private organizations with vested interests, have busily telling consumers - and reassuring our trading partners - that our pork is perfectly safe to eat. This flu virus is spread person-to-person like any other ‘flu virus, usually when an infected person sneezes or coughs or when the virus lands on a surface that you then touch and later touch your food, bite your fingernails or suck your thumb. Naturally, we don’t normally go around licking door knobs or stairway banisters, and hopefully, not sucking our thumb too often either. Although, certainly, this is a very 'fingernail-biting' time in our economy and many of us are taking up the habit every time we check our bank account or credit card statement.

But what about restaurants? The same situation applies, but of course, if a restaurant worker sneezes on your fresh tomato or lettuce – or, your fork - and you then put it in your mouth ….well…..Although the FDA and CDC are not admitting it, it is quite possible for people to catch swine flu from their food – but maybe from their salad instead of the pork chop.

Bon appetit!


Saturday, May 9, 2009


I have been out of touch...too busy on finishing my book on food safety, to keep up with the blog. Every day I wake up and decide this is the day I am going to update, and every night I go to sleep thinking I will do this tomorrow.

But it has been a fun few weeks if you are following hazards in your food supply. We moved from peanuts to pistacios (a step up in status and price), but it was all a bit deja-vu. As with peanuts, we found out that pistacios are everywhere, used in so many of our foods. Don't think it's over. New recalls are coming out every day. Maybe when it really is over, then we'll get bargain priced pistacios, just as there are bargain priced peanuts now. I remember when I lived in Istanbul, the pistacios there were incredibly fresh and delicious - and cheaper than potatoes.

But now while all this is still ongoing, we also have a widening outbreak in alfalfa, which has been going on for weeks. By the way, sprouted seeds, including alfalfa is about the most dangerous kind of food you can eat. The bacteria get right inside the seeds and there is no way to get them out. That is why people with suppressed immune systems are advised not to eat them. 'But I only eat organic alfalfa', a friend said to me the other day. 'That's safe.' No, it's not. Don't confuse pesticide residue and bacteria. Organic alfalfa are contaminated as well. Of course, you could cook it...

And then there is the swine flu. No, you can't get it from pork, although half the population still seems to think you can. But maybe you can get it from your salad....

Am I nuts? No.....See my next post.

In the meantime...bon appetit.


Sunday, March 1, 2009


So people are avoiding peanut butter in jars, even though there is no evidence to show it is contaminated. (It was just the bulk peanut butter sold to institutions, and the paste used by various manufacturers originating in the Blakely, Georgia plant that was believed to be contaminated with Salmonella bacteria). But peanut butter manufacturers are losing consumer confidence, and a lot of money. No surprise. I hate to admit this, but at the beginning I was avoiding peanut butter too - just in case. The trouble with a lot of these complicated outbreaks is that the story keeps changing on a daily basis. So what do you do? You play it safe and avoid anything even remotely connected.

A few days ago my 96 year-old neighbor invited us over for some 'moving pictures.' Actually, I hadn't the faintest idea what he meant. I was hoping it was some old pictures of the neighborhood before it became...you know...kind of up-market and cheesy. Anyway, I felt I had to take something over to eat. With only an hour's notice, what could I do? The cupboard was bare. All I had was that half-jar of peanut butter in the frig, some raisins, a can of sweet condensed milk, corn flakes....Eureka! Those peanut butter cookies that my friend Elizabeth taught me to make (before she died...so sad). But what if the people there didn't want to eat anything with peanut butter?

Oh well, I had no choice. Actually it worked out rather well. Except for the fact that the 'moving pictures' turned out to be videos of the most recent performance by his piano students. Too dreadful, but fun in a way. It was like moving back to a by-gone age.

What really annoyed me is that he did not serve the cookies I brought. But I was told afterwards that they were delicious, and everyone in his adoptive (Vietnamese) family loved them. And, as far as I know, no-one became ill. Certainly not my neighbor as he is out there every morning at 7am walking Cinnamon, the dog, and driving the kids to school in his truck. It would take more than a little Salmonella to do him in. It must be all those pomegranates and walnuts he ate when he had the ranch - up until a year ago.

Here is the recipe, with credits to Elizabeth Thomas, a wonderful person, a great foodie and the best dessert-maker I have ever known. May she cook with the angels.

1 can sweetened condensed milk,
40z. cornflakes (4 cups)
4 oz. golden raisins (1 cup)
1/2 cup peanut butter (chunky or smooth)

Cream together the peanut butter and condensed milk. Stir in the raisins. Gently mix in the cornflakes. Place the mix in mounds on a cookie sheet, covered with a non-stick flexible baking sheet or on kitchen parchment.

Bake at 350 degrees for 13-15 minutes until golden brown and almost set (make sure they don'tq burn underneath). Remove from sheet and set to cool after about one minute. When cool, store in air-tight container. They will keep about a week.

That's it! Easy breezie. About twenty minutes from beginning to end. The kind of instant killer-cookie we love. Number of calories? Don't ask me. I don't want to think about it. Safe? Absolutely!


Sunday, February 15, 2009


I did something today that I have been meaning to do - and putting off - ever since this peanut thing started (now by the latest count with over 500 people officially sickened in 44 states and 8 (or 9) dead. I started digging around to see what other outbreaks there had been in the U.S. food supply that were associated with peanut butter or products containing peanut butter or peanut paste.

I recalled that there had been one in early 2007 in Peter Pan and Great Value Peanut Butter. But I was suprised to find that during this one actually 628 cases of related illness had been officially confirmed in 47 states. The number of deaths appears to be in dispute. The culprit there was Salmonella bacteria as well, with a slightly different DNA.

And then I read about all these other little incidents - 'micro alerts' or whatever you want to call them, going back to the early 1970's when peanut butter or products became contaminated but was dealt with quietly by the company itself,without even alerting government. The more you dig, the more you find. In fact, in one case all the peanut butter was quietly pulled back by the company and literally dug underground. Good fertilizer?

It seems that many of these 'incidents' had two features in common: damp conditions in the plant, and storage of the prepared product near to either raw peanuts or other contaminated food items.

Ugh, and just as I was really beginning to love peanut butter. My favorite sandwich: whole wheat bread with peanut butter, sliced banana on top. And I had finally found a great peanut butter cookie I could make in 5 minutes and pop it in the oven for a super quick bake...... Life is cruel.


Monday, February 2, 2009


Since the peanut product contamination incident hit the media, there has been a lot of talk about what needs to be done to fix America's food supply. "The safest food supply in the world?" You have to be kidding. Whoever said that (and I forget which bureaucrat it was) has to be eating his words...and hopefully getting indigestion.

Actually, in many ways we are way behind most of the European countries and even some Asian ones in terms of food safety. Stricter legislation is hard to pass because of the power of the food industry coupled with inadequate government resources. But this is not the only reason we are lagging.

One of the weaknesses in our system is that responsibility for the safety of our food is divided up among a number of agencies. Depends how you count it: 3 main ones, maybe 12 at the next level, and if you really want to be comprehensive, you can get to 21.

The division of responsibility between the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is particularly strange and leads to some totally irrational situations in practice and shifting of blame when things go wrong and the public is up in arms. Some of this is happening during this peanut butter and product outbreak. It was also obvious during the 2007 tomato/not tomato contamination. Several European countries like France and even Canada realized that to do the job properly, you had to have a single agency in charge. We still haven't got there.

And of course, if you don't have enough resources, you can't do the job. Take the ongoing peanut contamination and safety at the plant where it all started. One government inspector was responsible for some widely scattered 260 facilities, one of which was the Peanut Corporation of America plant. And don't think that food safety inspectors spend all day every day running around inspecting. Or, that all you have to do for a thorough inspection is to take a two minute look-see about. It takes more - and, a thorough inspection takes time.

Most people would agree that it is even worse with our imported foods, where some of the plants are in developing countries, in remote areas, with terrible road access. Not to mention the fact that salaries are low and the bakshish is tempting. I've spent a lot of my life working in countries where much of U.S. food comes from these days, and I know how things work.

So where do we go from here? President Obama - I know you have your hands full right now, and this is not what you needed, but you did make a promise. For starters, there was that Food-Borne Illness and Surveillance Response Act you introduced in July, 2008 to make our food safer. To quote, your words were: "We must do everything we can to ensure that our families don't get sick from the foods they eat." On...on...

But remember, that is just the beginning.


UPDATE: We now have the updated and improved legislation (as of 2010), but not enough money to do the job properly. One without the other doesn't do much good. I guess we'll have to wait until...what? The end of the recession?

Sunday, February 1, 2009


As I expected, this peanut related contamination of our food supply is growing and growing, expanding every way: more confirmed cases of illness, more deaths, a wider time frame for risky foods, and many, many more possible suspect products. Yesterday there were some 32 new alerts in my mailbox. It's Sunday today, but I bet there will be another bunch today. It's no longer just peanut paste and bulk shipments of peanut butter to institutions, but also peanuts themselves and wonderful things like trail mixes.

Now that it has got to the peanuts, I am beginning to wonder if the source of the contamination (or, sources) is not limited to the Peanut Corporation of America facilities. I would not be the least surprised if it also pops up elsewhere. Maybe even at the peanut grower level. Jimmy Carter - are you involved?

As for recalling hundreds of peanut products going all the way back to January 1, 2007 - let's face it, that is a bit unrealistic. I bet we have already eaten most of it.

Just to be safe I am throwing out any item I have bought that contains peanuts. What is considered safe today, will probably be unsafe tomorrow. By the way, I found that my favorite pecan oatmeal bars also contain peanut paste. So much for the label.

I wonder if they have peanut futures on the commodities exchange? Maybe it isn't too late to sell some calls or buy some puts, so I could make some money for a change.

Bon appetit!

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Peanut butter is clogging my mailbox, if not my arteries. Today there are nine new recall notices from the Food and Drug Administration of products containing peanut butter paste which might be contaminated with Salmonella typhimurium bacteria. Yesterday there were six new recalls, and the day before, four. .....I am losing count, but I believe that by now some 125 - 130 products have been recalled because of this outbreak. Some of these foods were distributed nationwide, and are particularly popular with children, as well as some of my neighbors and friends - foods such as peanut butter cookies, ice cream, candy, crackers and more. There have been close to 500 confirmed cases of illness so far in 43 states, and some 7 suspected deaths. Multiply that by ten and you are likely to be closer to the real numbers, since only a small percentage of this type of illness gets reported.

How did this happen? It is believed that the contamination occurred at the Peanut Butter Corporation's Blakey, Ga. plant (now closed). At least, a very similar strain of this bacteria was found in a crack in the floor, near where the pallets were stored. Mind you, that still doesn't explain how it got into the vats. What, the roasted peanuts, peanut butter or paste landed on the floor and were then scooped up and put back into the containers? My guess is that this is not the end of the story. There will probably be more twists and turns, as usual. Stay tuned... We are on the case.

I have given up my favorite peanut-butter oatmeal bars, and am avoiding chocolates with peanut butter (sigh...), just in case. At least it is good for that belly bulge that arrived during the holidays. At the rate things are going, what is not on the recall list today, will probably be there tomorrow. I am just glad that I am not in some nursing home, hospital, university or school with food service that received the large tubs of contaminated peanut butter. Several people in long-term care facilities have become ill, and of course, any additional illness is worse for them than for those of us that are healthy.

The nonprofit National Peanut Board says Americans eat 700 million pounds of this yummy stuff every year. Apparently millions of pounds have been recalled. If peanut butter follows the route of the nationwide spinach outbreak in 2006 or the 2007 tomato scare (no, not tomato but Jalapeno and Serrano pepper) , we are going to be eating a lot less of it in the future - at least for a few years. Poor Peanut Corporation of America. Plus the others that produce it. This little bacteria is going to cost them.

The list of suspect products is too long to reproduce. The growing list of recalls is on: http://www.fda.gov/oc/opacom/hottopics/salmonellatyph.html. This list has now expanded to include some pet treats as well - not so dangerous for Fido, but could be if a child handles the treat and then does not wash his or her hands afterwards before eating. Most likely not all the recalled products are contaminated, but all the small producers did use peanut butter or paste from the suspect factory in making them.

But there is a bright side - at least until we know otherwise. Apparently some peanut butter/paste products are safe for us to eat. Here are some of the companies that are swearing they don't use any peanut paste or butter from the Blakey plant in making their goodies, and, unless we find out otherwise, it is perfectly safe to eat them.

  • See's Candies of California, Hershey, Rees's and Russell Stover Candies.
  • Kraft products such as Nabisco and Planter brands.
  • Quaker Oats granola bars or snacks.
  • Products of Sport protein bar company PowerBar, a division of Nestle.
  • Energy Bars made by Bonk Beaker of California.
  • Tiger's Milk nutrition bars made by Schiff Nutrition of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Keep eating...


Monday, January 5, 2009

Is that Melamine in our Food Supply?

There was another one today. In all, that makes at least three in December, and one in early January. What I am talking about is Food and Drug Administration (FDA) alerts about yet another melamine-contaminated food product.

Melamine? Wasn't that the contaminant in pet food in 2007 that sickened some 8,500 of our beloved cats and dogs and other pets and killed many of them? Yes, it was. Wasn't it also the industrial chemical that got into milk in China (and maybe a bunch of other foods as well, such as eggs, meat, and soy). Yes, it is. The official estimates on the China incident: about 30,000 or so infants sickened, and about 6 killed. I would bet my beloved new Breville super-automatic toaster and electric kettle (that my son bought me for Christmas) that this is a huge underestimation.

So what is a nitrogen-based compound used in making plastic items, such as eating utensils and laminates, whiteboard wall paneling, flooring and Formica countertops doing in food? The answer is greed...A get-rich quick scheme by unscrupulous people who thought they could get away with a little sleight-of-hand. This was not a case of turning water into wine, but of turning water into milk (with a little help from melamine). And you thought the latest financial scams were bad?

Back to melamine in the U.S. food supply. Bottom line: it's there, but we don't yet know all the food products that are involved, or how bad it will be for us. The FDA testing is ongoing. It takes time. Hang in there. We'll keep you informed. Just waiting for those scientists to get over their vacation sloth and for the new and more honest administration to come in, so we get the real facts.

But why? Why is melamine in our food? Well, that's what globalization gets you. We love imported foods, and food manufacturers love cheap imported ingredients. It all translates into better profits. China is a great soure of both. And, no prejudice involved, but that's where it began. But it could have been some other chemical in some other country. There are plenty to choose from.

The warnings are dribbling in to the public, except that most of us remain blissfully ignorant. Not that it matters much. By the time the warnings are issued the products have usually been on store shelves for months, and most have been eaten. Yumm...Did you notice that lovely crunch of plastic in your chocolate bar? Feel an odd kind of tickle in your kidneys a few days later?

Let's take today's announcement. National Brands recalled topaz wafer rolls. Going backwards, the alert on December 20th, announced the discovery of melamine in gourmet cocoa products. On December 18th it was Wonderfarm biscuits. On December 6 it was found in chocolate bars held by cute teddy bears that were sold at Walgreens. And yes, in November it was found in low levels in three major brands of infant formula sold in the U.S. In between there have been other incidents. Most of the melamine contaminated products were sold in several states or nationwide. And it is not just one food manufacturer or distributor involved, but many.

What makes it worse, is that most of the contaminated products identified so far are eaten by infants or children, who are more vulnerable. Of course, all the announcements downplay the risks and say no illnesses have been reported. But let's not be fooled. As we found out in the case of melamine in pet food, it can take a while for melamine to create kidney and other problems. And it takes a lot longer to track it back to a specific food product. As for the low dosages, let's hope they are too low to do any harm. But it might be a good idea to remember that findings in other countries have shown that the levels in a single type of produce - such as chocolate bars or candy - can vary tremendously from one chocolate bar or candy to the next. There are also a lot of things we still don't understand about how melamine works in the body, what the cumulative effect is, how melamine and cyanuric acid work together, and in what situations melamine is most likely to be dangerous.

So how do we avoid it? At this point I would love to give a magic answer. But frankly, I don't know. Much of this melamine contaminant is probably reaching us through foods produced in China, or, ingredients produced in China that are then used here in the U.S. Some is also coming from other countries that have imported melamine contaminated ingredients and used them to produce foods that are then exported to the U.S. One such recent case is the 'his and hers' gourmet cocoa products produced in Quebec, Canada.

Perhaps the best way to be safe is not to eat any manufactured food products that might contain milk ingredients. But I would not be at all surprised if it did not soon turn up in soy as well. Or, something else, like our eggs.

Stay tuned.

In the meantime: bon apetit, buen provecho, guten appetit, bete'avon, buen appetito, kale orexe, itadakimas, est gesunterhayt, afyet olson, priiatnogo appetita, buon appetito.......Is that enough for now?


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Is Organic Safer? (The Dental View)

I had a chat with my dentist today. That is, as much as anyone can say anything, while that sadist has a drill in your mouth and goes on ad infinitum on issues to which you can't reply. He asked me what I had been doing lately (probably the kind of safe conversational question they teach you to ask in dental school when you can't remember a thing about your current patient). I answered that I was writing a book on Food Safety, surprised that I actually managed to get out a total of 8 words before he jammed more cotton and drills in my mouth.

'Oh,' he said. 'Great...very interesting. Of course, I just eat organic fruit and vegetables so I don't need to worry about that. No need to wash off chemicals or anything like that. Perfectly safe. Wonderful....Apple a day to keep your gums healthy and all that'....etc. etc. There was about 10 minutes more along the same lines. I kept having drill-powered dreams of him clutching his stomach in agony with a bad case of food poisoning.

'Arfff..Ugh...no...fruff'...I said. Or something that sounded like that. He paid no attention. When he eventually gave me a breather, and after he had expressed his views on about 5 other topics, 4 of which I strongly disagreed with, but had to suffer in silence, I asked: 'Back to organic produce - you mean you never ever wash any organic fruit or vegetables?'

'No, he answered. 'No need to. No pesticides. Good clean stuff.'

I was amazed...horrified. But afterwards I found that a couple of my friends shared his view. But of course, they're wrong. While research has shown that organic produce that is grown and processed according to the standards of the USDA’s National Organic Programme has less chemical residues than nonorganic produce, it can carry some - roughly about a fifth as much. This may be from previous land use, contaminated irrigation water, pesticides in rain or groundwater, chemical sprays drifting from neighboring non-organic farms or mixing or mis-labelling of the produce. Disillusioning, yes, but unfortunately true.

And what about bacteria and other microorganisms? A few years ago a TV programme created an uproar because it argued that organic produce may actually be more dangerous than traditionally grown fruit and vegetables. Some food scientists also argue that Organics’ heavy use of animal manure and other organic waste can pose health risks. On the other side of the fence, organic advocates say that is not true because of the very ridid safety measures organic producers use.

Whatever the case, if you don't want to risk it, wash it, organic or not organic. Organic may be safer in terms of chemicals, but can be just as dangerous in terms of microorganisms. And who wants those.

Keep eating...