Monday, February 25, 2013


Among the several scandals rocking the globe at the moment, is the one about horsemeat. It has been turning up in food when it shouldn't and people are very upset about it. Some big companies, including Nestle and IKEA have woken up to a nightmare situation. Of course, everybody is denying culpability: "We had no idea it was used in our products. " So what else is new?

A week ago, Nestle had to recall two chilled pasta products - Buitoni Beef Ravioli and Beef Tortellini - from store shelves in Italy and Spain as well as a lasagna product sold to French catering businesses. They all used meat from a particular German supplier (H.J. Schypke) which apparently contained horse.

Now IKEA has found that its famous Swedish meatballs may contain horsemeat as well. It has had to withdraw them from sale in 14 European countries. In the UK food safety officials found the supposedly "all beef" lasagna sold by the UK firm Findus, contained horsemeat (and pig meat). Horse DNA also turned up in hamburger meat in Ireland. In Scotland, frozen hamburgers at a school were found to contain horsemeat as well. There's more.

Horsemeat could be lurking anywhere in our burgers, meat balls, sheperd's pie, moussaka, pastas and pizzas. This finding has created a big global furor. So what's the problem? People in some countries (e.g. Tongans, Mongolians and some Hispanic and European populations) eat horsemeat all the time. Is it really unsafe?

Leaving aside any emotional feelings you may have about the issue, there is nothing inherently dangerous about horsemeat. In fact, it is a perfectly good source of protein, low in fat and a good source of Omega 3s, and if mixed with other meat and flavored, doesn't taste too bad. The main issue is that it could contain drug residues. Unfortunately, horses may be given a wide range of drugs, including ones like phenylbutazone, also known as bute, which is harmful to humans. Many may have been injected with with illegal drugs. We don't know what they are and we don't even know the effect of the residues on human health.

In all, it is probably safer not to eat horsemeat in most countries on a regular basis. But if you find out that the dish you at in Mongolia that was supposed to be "camel" or "yak" was actually horse, don't worry. The chances are that the horse received far fewer drugs than its counterpart in Britain, France or the U.S.

To your good health,


Thursday, February 21, 2013


If you have read my earlier posts on the topic of so-called "foreign materials" in the U.S. food supply (bits of metal, plastic, glass and so on), you will realize that I think the problem has become worse because of our struggling economy. That is, food processing companies are trying to save on maintenance and replacement of aging equipment. But of course, this is not the only cause.

And the problem is continuing. In the past few days alone, BBU, Inc., the parent of the Bimbo Bakeries companies, has issued another recall due to possible presence of flexible wire or mesh in a host of their bakery products (see the alerts link on this page). They already recalled a number of products. Apparently the cause was a faulty screen at a flour mill, from which they bought their flour (Dakota Specialty Milling). This resulted in bits of wire mesh getting into the flour, and from there into the buns and other baked products at Bimbo Bakeries. It seems that Heartland Brands® also sourced ingredients from this mill. It has had to recall two varieties of its granola cereals in the United States, Bahamas, Bermuda, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Israel and Trinidad. (The "foreign materials" may now have travelled to several foreign countries!).

Also, Smithfield Packing Company, a Smithfield, Va. today recalled some 38,000 pounds of pork sausage because it may contain small pieces of plastic, likely from gloves. If you have read The Safe Food Handbook, you will realize there are all kinds of things in sausages, but really...rubber gloves?

And don't think odd things are turning up only in human food. Our pets may be at risk too. Also in the past few days, Nature's Variety has announced a recall of one batch of Instinct® Raw Organic Chicken Formula because pieces of clear plastic may be found in some bags (they could cause your pet to choke).

Oh well...Take your pick: odd foreign materials in the U.S. food supply, or, rat poop in cashews and almonds sold in the UK (also discovered recently).

To your good health,


UPDATE: So finally Dakota Specialty Milling has got around to doing its own recall of those flour products that contain bits of wire. About time too!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


It seems that every few months in the United States there is a recall of salad greens, usually packaged as ready-to-eat items in bags. Almost always, they have been grown and packaged in the Salinas Valley, California.

There was a recall of Organic Baby Spinach products by Taylor Farms Retail, Inc. of Salinas a few days ago. The suspect bacteria was (EHEC) Enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli. Exactly two months earlier the same firm had to recall bagged Hearts of Romaine lettuce, because of a finding of Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. And seven months before that, Taylor Farms had to recall its bagged Organic Baby Spinach because it was potentially contaminated with Salmonella bacteria. E.coli, Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella - all found in Taylor Farms bagged greens, just within 12 months!

But Taylor Farms is not the only Salinas company with repeat recalls for bagged greens. In 2012, as well as in 2011, River Ranch Fresh Foods, of Salinas, California had problems with its retail and foodservice bagged salads, because of contamination with Listeria monocytogenes. Huge recalls resulted. And, so it goes, one company after another having to hastily retrieve its bagged greens from market shelves...on and on, recalls every few months, most of them originating in Salinas.

Is Salina Valley deadly? Well, we're not sure. Certainly, one reason for all these recalls of Salinas Valley grown greens is that some 80 percent of the salad greens that are eaten in the United States are grown in this area. In fact, it has been called "the salad bowl" of the United States.

But yes, there have been reports of groundwater and surface water contamination in parts of the Salinas Valley. And it is not only just bacteria. There are also ongoing concerns about water contamination due to dangerous metals like arsenic, and by nitrates. What is causing all it?

In the case of bacteria, the origin is usually animal feces. Much of the arsenic comes from natural geologic sources, but some also from commercial fertilizers that contain arsenic. Ammonium nitrate fertilizer could also be adding nitrates to the water. Greens grown in this area can absorb such contaminants.

So, enjoy your "healthy" greens, and try not to think too much about what else is in them, apart from those great nutrients.

To your good health,


Saturday, February 9, 2013


What you are looking at in this photo is a 'murasoi" fish which is like a rockfish. But this is not just any old fish. It is the fish that holds the world's record for radiation contamination.

The fish was caught recently in Japan - near an unloading point north of the No. 1 through No. 4 reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. (Reminder: on March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and huge tsunami devastated the Fukushima region of Japan and set off a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant). The Tokyo Electric Power company (TEPCO) admits that the fish contains 254,000 Becquerel per kilogram of cesium - which amounts to 2,540 times Japan's limit for radiation in seafood.

Alright, it is true that no fishermen operate in this area. And, rockfish are "homebodies" in that they do not travel long distances. But what about radiation in other fish? Almost two years after the Fukushima Daiichi tragedy, is this an issue?

Several reports, based on testing of radiation in various kinds of fish from different parts of the ocean off Japan, argue that contamination of waters and seafood near this area - and, even further away - is an ongoing issue.

Why could this still be a problem, after almost two years? Last October, TEPCO admitted that radiation leaks at the plant had not fully stopped. Some kinds of radiation also hangs around in the water for a while, and fish can swim right through it and take in contaminated seawater through their gills or eat organisms that carry radiation. It then accumulates in their muscle tissue.

But, before you give up eating wild-caught fish, remember that controls do exist in most countries, and any imports from Japan have been under additional scrutiny for radiation.

To your good health,

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Ask a frequent traveler to name the worst thing that can happen on a trip. I bet most would not say "missing a flight," having your pocket picked," or, "being kidnapped." They would say "getting travelers' diarrhea" (TD), also called "Montezuma's revenge". It's common and it's totally miserable. Some estimates say that if you visit any developing country in Africa, Asia or Latin America you have a 30-50 percent of coming down with it. That may be an exaggeration, but still.....

Let's just talk about the extreme case: not a little tummy upset due to change of diet, but what we all dread on a long-planned and often expensive vacation or an important business trip: bad continuing diarrhea and stomach cramps, sometimes accompanied by headache, vomiting, dizziness, fever, fatigue or similar symptoms. So what causes it?

Usually - though not always, it is some contaminated food or drink. Contaminated by what? Any number of possibilities exist. And that is where part of the problem lies in preventing or treating it. It is estimated that some 80-90% of TD is caused by bacteria (one of the Salmonella, a Shigella, E.coli, Campylobacter, or another bacterium). But the cause could also be norovirus (or, occasionally, some other virus such as rotavirus) or a parasite (such as Giardia lamblia or Entamoeba histolytica ).

So apart from using good hygiene (wash your hands, don't bite your fingernails or hangnails etc.) how can you prevent it?

Let's look at this issue from 2 angles: first, avoiding the TD-cause itself, and secondly, taking something or other so that you won't become ill (or, as ill) even if you are exposed.

To avoid ingesting pathogens from your food and drink, particularly when in risky areas (such as rural areas of many developing countries):

• Don't eat at buffets, or, mass catered events (if you can avoid it) or from street vendors
• Eat food that has been thoroughly cooked and is piping hot when served
• If you are dying for something raw, eat a fruit that has been grown on a tree and can be peeled (such as a banana, mango, papaya).
• Don't drink local water, drinks made locally with water, or, use ice in drinks (unless you have been asusred that it is made from bottled water). Only drink bottled drinks or boiled ones.

As for the other part of the problem - what can you take to prevent yourself from becoming ill even if you do eat or drink something contaminated? There are a range of options that have been suggested, but don't expect any one of them to work 100 percent (4-40% reduction of risk would be more like it!) Here are a few of the most commonly used ones (note again, we do not offer any guarantees):

• Take Pepto-Bismol (check first with your doctor as it is not recommended in certain cases, and not for children). The usually suggested dosage is 2-4 tablets 4x a day. (You may want to carry a bag of prunes along as well, in case of resulting constipation. And of course, you will also be likely to have a black tongue, which could actually work to your advantage if you are kidnapped: they'll think you have some horrible disease and let you go!)
• Take a probiotic such as Lactobacillus GG and Saccharomyces boulardii . The research is ambiguous as to whether this works. But, it is unlikely to harm you.
• Take a prophylactic (preventive) dose of a prescribed antibiotic (While sometimes recommended, the risks could outweigh the potential benefits in many cases. But if you are an olympic athlete, the Secretary of State, or meeting with the head of the Central Bank, you may want to use this approach).
• Revert to some ancient home remedies. These include ones espoused by my mother who always insisted I take garlic along (particularly to avoid parasites). There are many others, including apple-cider vinegar, ginger and more.

The best approach? Living on nutrition bars and coke?

To your good health - and a pleasant trip,


Monday, February 4, 2013


Often in our food system, one recall leads to another. As I have said before - If you want to really avoid contaminated foods, don't just avoid the food product that is being recalled. Instead, draw a wide circle around the product for a few weeks, and avoid these as well, to see what else turns up. It could be the same food item under a different label, an expansion of an existing recall by the distributor, producer or retailer or recall of foods that have been made with the recalled item.

So let's turn to Whole Foods Market. About a week ago it recalled whole-catch smoked Alaskan Salmon in Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island and Utah. Some three days later, it expanded that recall to include an additional lot number and six more states.

Then it recalled various Circle Sea Salmon Lox Trim sold in Oregon and Washington state stores. Wonderful-sounding ones such as Gravlox Cream Cheese Spread, Bagel Half with Lox Cream Cheese w/Capers and Whole Bagel with Lox Cream Cheese with Capers.

All this in the space of a week. Three recalls.

Will there be more recalls of potentially Listeria contaminated foods by this health-conscious store? I wouldn't be surprised.

To your good health,