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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Mad Cow, Eye Cancer, Feces In Your Food? The Price of Cutting Back on Meat Inspectors



Food safety recalls and animal cruelty are increasing under government abdication of public health duties.



The USDA is cutting back on federal meat inspectors, allowing slaughterhouses to self-police, and already questions about the program are surfacing. This month, USDA recalled  8.7 million pounds of beef products processed at Rancho Feeding Corp. which included Nestle's Philly Steak and Cheese and Croissant Crust Philly Steak and Cheese Hot Pockets, Walmart Fatburgers, Kroger Ground Beef Mini Sliders and other well-known brands.

The reason for the gigantic recall, says USDA, is that the slaughterhouse  "processed diseased and unsound animals and carried out these activities without the benefit or full benefit of federal inspection." The multi-state recall, applying to all meat produced over a year at the facility, caused Rancho Feeding Corp. to  close.

The USDA cost-cutting, self-regulation program, called HIMP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-Based Inspection Models Project) will eliminate  800 federal meat inspectors and is already in operation at about 25 chicken and turkey plants. It likely played a role in the Rancho Feeding Corp. recall said Stan Painter, president of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, which represents 6,000 inspectors nationwide. “In many places, managers and veterinarians are being asked to help with inspections,” because of a shortage of federal inspectors, he said.

Six years ago, Painter spoke out about cutbacks in federal inspection when undercover video of "downer" cows moved with electric prods, forklifts and water hoses at the Chino, Ca-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. slaughterhouse surfaced.   Painter warned that the government's cost-driven move toward self-regulation of private slaughterhouses amounted to the fox "guarding its own henhouse." The meat from the cows, which was supplying the National School Lunch Program, was recalled because of the high likelihood of "downer cows" carry Mad Cow disease. It became the largest meat recall in US history.

Westland/Hallmark had been cited by the USDA in 2005 for “too much electric prodding causing animals to get more excited while being driven towards [the kill] box," suggesting it was receiving sick and weak cows. But despite the USDA's "7,800 pairs of eyes scrutinizing 6,200 slaughterhouses and food processors across the nation… in the end, it took an undercover operation by an animal rights group to reveal" the abuse said the  Los Angeles Times in a  scathing 2008 editorial.  Even before the recent meat inspector cutbacks, the government was allowing  sick and diseased cattle to be processed for the US dinner table until the Humane Society of the United States intervened. Westland/Hallmark  ceased operations soon after.

One ailment in cows that could slip through as the number of federal meat inspectors declines is eye cancer, says Bill Niman, a rancher who did business for 40 years with Rancho Feeding Corp. "A farmer sends a cow in with cancer, and he knows it has cancer-eye—it's a growth on the eye, this is not a microbial situation," he told the  Village Voice. "The inspectors, they know it has cancer-eye. So the farmer shouldn't have sent it, and the inspector should have caught it."

Both the shuttered Rancho Feeding Corp. and Westland/Hallmark were slaughterhouses where farmers could send and often dump their dairy cows who could no longer walk. "The cattle are going to go down in the truck," Rod Bolcao, owner of Chino Livestock Market told the  Inland Valley Daily Bulletin who was familiar with Westland/Hallmark. They "aren't going to be strong enough to make the ride" and Westland/Hallmark was there "to pick them up," he said. Without a slaughterhouse like Westland/Hallmark for cull cattle, dairymen lose the $400 they would make on the carcass and instead have to pay "money to euthanize them and haul them out," as much as $70 to $150, he lamented.
Nowhere did Bolcao address the ethics of working a dairy cow until the difference between disposing of her and selling her to be slaughtered for meat is $250.
Rancho Feeding Corp., the only slaughterhouse in the Bay Area, was also one of the few facilities in its area to slaughter cull dairy cows, said Niman. Dairy cattle are older and sicker, and once their milking days are over they are processed into low-grade meat instead of being retired.
Bolcao and Niman are not the only ag voices recounting the cavalier disposal of cull dairy cows which owners try to get on the truck to the slaughterhouse even if the cows will never walk off on their own steam.  A 2010 report from the  USDA's Inspector General identified four operations that dumped 211 cows unfit for human food, calling the operators "individuals who have a history of picking up dairy cows with drugs in their system and dropping them off at the plant."
Two of the four Mad Cows that have been found in the US since 2003 were also downers, unable to walk. Cow number two, discovered in late 2004, was purchased at a livestock sale by an "order buyer" who sent her to the slaughterhouse four days later, according to a  government report. When the truck arrived at H&B Packing in Waco, according to the  Star-Telegram, she was already dead and so she was transported instead to Champion Pet Food, across town. Even though there were reports that the cow was unable to walk at the livestock where she was nonetheless sold for meat, the farmer who owned her told government investigators that “the cow had always been excitable and had fallen while she was being loaded to go to the market, but that this was not unusual behavior for her.” Right.
Cow number three, discovered in March, 2006, was  also a downer who “had at her side a 2- to 3-week old red Charolais cross female calf” at the time of her death, according to the USDA report. In both cases, the government protected the identities of the ranches and allowed them to resume operations in a month--though the cause of the Mad Cow disease was never found. With the first US mad cow, found in late 2003,  officials refused to tell the public which restaurants and outlets may have served meat containing the cow.
Instances of cruelty are not the only expected result of the government's cost-cutting capitulation to private industry by reducing and eliminating inspection. Federal meat inspectors are also responsible for a plant’s compliance with the Federal Meat Inspection Act, Poultry Products Inspection Act and Egg Products Inspection Act. Yet since Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) was implemented in 2000 (a self-policing measure that was the precursor to HIMP) it is increasingly hard to do their jobs.
“My plant in Pennsylvania processed 1,800 cows a day, 220 per hour,” federal meat inspector Lester Friedlander told the press in 2004.  Stopping the line cost about $5,000 a minute, so veterinarians are pressured “to look the other way” when violations happen.
Dean Wyatt, a Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) supervisory public health veterinarian, reiterated Friedlander's charges in  2010 congressional hearings. Federal meat inspectors are unable to do their job on either end, he testified, because FSIS district offices often side with plant management over inspectors, reducing them to powerless figureheads who are sometimes openly laughed at by plant workers.
Stan Painter of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals repeated the charges in  additional congressional testimony. "Sometimes, even if we write noncompliance reports, some of the larger companies use their political muscle to get those overturned at the agency level or by going to the congressional delegation to get this inspection staff to back off," he said.
Soon after HACCP was implemented in 2000,  62 percent of meat inspectors in a survey admitted that they had  allowed feces, vomit and metal shards in food on a daily or weekly basis, which had not happened before HACCP. Almost 20 percent of inspectors said they’d been told not to document violations. Eighty percent of 451 inspectors said that HACCP interfered with their ability to enforce the law and the public’s right to know about food safety. (No wonder HACCP has been dubbed “Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray.”)
As food safety recalls increase under government abdication of its public health duties, the risk of Mad Cow disease, eye cancer and grotesque levels of cruelty to animals will only increase. February's recall of top brands let Nestle's Hot Pockets shows that industry will put profits ahead of self-policing when it can. By eliminating federal inspectors to save money, the USDA is harming food consumers, animals and the public trust. 
Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter and the author of "Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Random House)."

Thursday, February 13, 2014

5 Messed-Up Things That Are In Your Food



Many of these ingredients are banned in Europe, but here in the good old USA you'll find them on your dinner plate. 



Two years ago, the nation's collective stomach churned when people learned they were eating a meat product called "pink slime."  Lean, finely textured beef as the industry wanted to call it, was meat scraps that were once earmarked for pet food repurposed for the human dinner table, especially the National School Lunch Program. While the product looked like human intestines, what caused the national revulsion was that pink slime was treated with puffs of ammonia to kill the bacterium E. coli. Yum.
Soon after the hoopla began, the main supplier of pink slime, Beef Products, Inc., announced it  was closing its production facilities. But since then, other products the public doesn't know it's consuming or  want to consume have surfaced, and the manufacturers have not necessarily been as forthcoming. There's a good chance you are eating some of the following products and byproducts.
1. Azodicarbonamide in Bread
Until a month ago, few had heard of this "dough conditioner," intended to provide strength and improve elasticity. Like pink slime, it was azodicarbonamide's industrial overtones that drove indignation—it's "the same chemical used to make yoga mats, shoe soles, and other rubbery objects," wrote food  blogger Vani Hari in a successful petition to get Subway to remove the substance from its baked products.
While World Health Organization tests found azodicarbonamide risks "uncertain," it has been linked to deaths in animals and allergic reactions in humans. Azodicarbonamide is banned in Europe and Australia and its use carries a prison sentence in Singapore, writes Hari. The  Center for Science in the Public Interest warns that when azodicarbonamide is baked in bread, it produces the carcinogen urethane. While Subway announced it is "in the process of removing azodicarbonamide as part of our bread improvement efforts," the dough conditioner is also used in food at McDonald's, Burger King, Starbucks, Arby's, Wendy's, Jack in the Box and Chick-fil-A. It is also in grocery store and restaurant breads, CNN says.
2. Plastic Microbeads in Fish and Waterways
For years, the consumer products industry has given us plastic microbeads in toothpaste, liquid hand soaps, skin exfoliators, other personal care products and industrial cleaners. Products like Olay's body wash, Dove Gentle Exfoliating Foaming Facial Cleanser and Clean & Clear Daily Pore Cleanser increase the plastic clogging the planet's seas, "killing millions of sea creatures every year when they swallow it, choke on it, or get tangled in it and drown," according to Slate. It was widely believed, however, that human health was spared. "Our assessment is that they will largely be removed during sewage treatment," Jay Gooch, associate director of external relations in beauty care at Procter & Gamble, reassured Slate.
But last year the microbeads were found in water samples in three of the Great Lakes, implying that wastewater treatment is not removing them. The remaining Great Lakes have yet to be tested. The beads, which work their way up the marine food chain, "absorb and retain chemical contaminants," says the  Chicago Tribune. Some manufacturers are phasing out the beads but consumers should avoid any products that list the ingredient polyethylene.
3. Brominated Vegetable Oil in Soft Drinks and Beverages
Like pink slime and azodicarbonamide, few had heard of brominated vegetable oil (BVO) or believed they were consuming it until recently. And like pink slime and azodicarbonamide, it is brominated vegetable oil's (BVO) connection to industrial products that sparked outrage—the oil, from corn or soy, is bonded with the element bromine which is used in couches and carpets as a  flame retardant. Bromide is an endocrine disruptor and part of the halide family which includes fluorine, chlorine and iodine. It competes for the same receptors in the body as iodine and can cause iodine deficiency.
Brominated flame retardants build up in people's bodies, including breast milk and animal and human research have linked them to early puberty and hormone and neurological problems. Excess consumption of drinks with BVO, used to keep flavoring dispersed in a beverage, have been  linked to headaches, fatigue, ataxia (loss of muscle coordination), memory loss and swollen hands with ulcers.
In late 2012, 15-year-old  Sarah Kavanagh of Hattiesburg, MS began a petition on Change.org for PepsiCo to remove BVO from Gatorade. Within a month, PepsiCo announced it planned to remove BVO from Gatorade and replace it with sucrose acetate isobutyrate, but six months later,  PepsiCo said it would  keep BVO in Mountain Dew sold in the Americas. BVO is still reportedly in Squirt, Fanta Orange, Sunkist Pineapple and some flavors of Fresca and Poweraide.
4. High Fructose Corn Syrup and Artificial Sweeteners in Soft Drinks
Scientists and health professionals cannot decide which is worse—high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or artificial sweeteners in soft drinks. HFCS, which is cheaper for soft drink makers to use and store than "real sugar," has been linked to liver damage, diabetes, heart problems, obesity and  even mercury consumption. Yet, aspartame, saccharin and acesulfame potassium, three leading artificial sweeteners, have all been linked to cancer. 
2011 study by the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine found that people who drank one diet soda every day had a 61 percent higher chance of having a heart attack or stroke. Questions also persist about artificial sweeteners’ links to Alzheimer’s disease, autism, chronic fatigue syndrome, lupus, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. (Nor do artificial sweeteners necessarily help people lose weight, some studies suggest.)
The plot thickened in 2012, when a Harvard study indicted both sugar and HFCS-sweetened beverages. Men who drank one soft drink a day had a 20 percent increased risk of heart disease regardless of their age, diet, family history or alcohol/tobacco use. The Harvard study was announced one month after doctors published an editorial in the journal  Nature calling for all types of sugar and HFCS to be regulated the way alcohol or tobacco are.
5. Transglutaminase Also Known as "Meat Glue"
Around the same time rumors of pink slime and BVO in the US food supply began to surface, the term "meat glue" also debuted. Meat glue is transglutaminase, an adhesive powder originally obtained from animal blood, but lately more likely to come from fermented bacteria which is cheaper. Meat glue lets chefs cobble together disparate and low-quality scraps of meat, put it in the refrigerator overnight and produce "filet mignon," a deception that is the basis of many consumers' objections.
Up to  35 percent of food products contain meat glue, including  tofu, milk, yogurt and even cereal according to industry accounts. Animal versions of meat glue in which the coagulation animal protein thrombin is combined with fibrin have affected blood clotting time in humans because bovine thrombin can  cross-react with human factors. Studies showed that repeat clinical applications of topical bovine thrombin increase human risk. Another risk of meat glue is bacterial growth: scraps that were outside pieces but are now glued together inside a "formed meat" are hard to cook, says microbiologist  Glenn Pener. “The amount of bacteria on a steak that’s been put together with meat glue is hundreds of times higher.”
Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter and the author of "Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Random House)."