4 Common Food Threats That Are Making Us Sick and Fat

Today, food safety is no longer as simple as saying no to expired milk. As major health problems continue to surface in America’s food supply, here’s what to do to protect you and your family.

By Melanie Warner

With brown hair and a wide, trusting smile, Ashley Armstrong looks like your average happy, healthy 5-year-old. She practices ballet, plays softball, and just started to learn the guitar.

But when it comes to her health, Ashley, who lives in a suburb of Indianapolis, is anything but normal. She has chronic kidney disease, meaning her kidneys can’t properly filter waste from her body, and in order to go about her daily activities, she takes five different medications and follows a severely restricted diet.

Ashley’s condition, which will probably necessitate several kidney transplants and may prevent her from having children, is not the result of a genetic defect or birth complications, but was caused by eating E. coli–infected bagged Dole spinach when she was just 2 years old. On August 27, 2006, Ashley’s mother, Elizabeth, cooked one of the family’s staple dinners—spaghetti and meatballs with a spinach salad—and nine days later, Ashley fell sick. The toddler spent six weeks in the hospital hooked up to half a dozen tubes, vomiting black bile while her brain swelled and her kidneys failed.

Food safety hasn’t always been the complex problem it is today. In years past, people ensured the safety of what they ate by reading expiration dates, cooking meat thoroughly, and avoiding raw eggs. Until the early 1990s, there were no genetically modified foods, and most of our fish came from oceans rather than from manmade farms.

But now, the simple act of eating lunch can feel like a game of Russian roulette. In the past few years, deadly bacteria like E. coli, salmonella, and listeria have turned up in all sorts of everyday foods: peanut butter, spinach, Italian salami, jalapeño peppers, granola bars, pot pies, and, most recently, eggs.

How did our food become unsafe?

Food-safety experts say bacterial contamination is one of the unintended effects of America’s mass-produced, increasingly centralized food production system that relies heavily on chemical technology. In fact, our methods for manufacturing and packaging food have become so efficient that American meals are the least expensive in the world relative to our GDP. According to the USDA, we spend 9.6 percent of our disposable income on food, lower than any other country and a huge drop from the 17.5 percent we spent in 1960.

But low price tags have hidden costs. Today, American eaters run the risk of ingesting not just deadly bacteria, but also residues of the hormones and antibiotics used for cattle, chicken, and pigs, in addition to chemical pesticides and insecticides sprayed on crops and the genetically modified soybeans and corn that now dominate the country’s farmland. Even the fish we eat now has remnants of antibiotics and harmful pollutants.

“Food used to be something that you bought and prepared yourself,” says Bill Marler, managing partner at Marler Clark, a Seattle law firm that has represented thousands of food-poisoning victims, including Ashley Armstrong. “If we want to continue our system of low-cost, mass-produced agriculture, we’re going to have to come to grips with the consequences.” Read on for a list of the five biggest food-related threats.

Threat #1: Food-borne illnesses

A study released in March by The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Produce Safety Project found that food-borne illness is on the rise. Pathogens like E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter, and listeria sicken 76 million people each year and kill about 5,000, costing the country more than $150 billion in medical bills, missed work, and reduced productivity, the study reported. Just this past August, 550 million eggs were recalled in the US, due to salmonella contamination that sickened more than 1,000 people. Even the two-decade-old dilemma of E. coli in meat continues to elude repeated efforts by the food industry and government regulators to end the problem. In 2009, more than 100 million pounds of beef products were recalled because of contamination from E. coli, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Marler recommends that if you really want to protect yourself and your family from food-borne illness, buy primarily from small, local producers, such as those found at farmers’ markets. “It’s no guarantee you won’t ever get sick from food, but it decreases your chances exponentially,” he says. Why? Marler says a hamburger from a single cow on one farm is much less likely to be contaminated with E. coli than standard supermarket hamburger, which can contain meat from up to eight different animals. The story’s the same for bagged spinach: Leaves from many different fields are mixed together in large processing facilities, spreading any contamination around and magnifying the problem.

But for those who aren’t ready to give up their weekly trips to the supermarket, there is good news on the horizon—or rather, on Capitol Hill, where broad, bipartisan support may end up pushing through the Food Safety Modernization Act, which would require more frequent FDA inspections of food-processing facilities, and mandate that processors develop and implement food-safety procedures. The act would also give the agency the authority to order recalls and require companies to keep better production records. Currently, FDA inspections are shockingly rare, averaging once every 10 years. “This bill will go a long way to better ensure the safety of our food,” says Sandra Eskin, director of the food-safety campaign at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Threat #2: Hormones and Antibiotics

Synthetic hormones have been routinely used in US beef production for more than four decades, and beef producers, along with the FDA and USDA, have long maintained that the hormone residues that appear in hamburgers and steaks are low enough not to pose a threat to human health. Some 80 percent of all US beef cattle are given regular doses of six different hormones that enable them to grow faster, thus helping farmers generate more meat for less feed.

But research now shows that when it comes to hormones, even small doses can have dramatic effects, particularly on fetuses and young children. “It’s not the size of the dose, but the fact that there’s any exposure at the wrong time,” says David Wallinga, MD, a member of the American Public Health Association (APHA). Because the endocrine system is such an integral part of everything the human body does, exposure to synthetic hormones while the body is still developing may contribute to significant problems later in life, including increased risk of breast and prostate cancer, early onset of puberty, and infertility, he says.

In November 2009, the APHA issued a policy statement, calling for the beef industry to stop using artificial hormones in food production because they mimic and interfere with natural human hormones. “We now know that synthetic hormones can actually change genes, in terms of how the information contained in genes gets read by cells. The evidence that hormones outside the body are a problem keeps getting stronger and stronger,” it stated.

For instance, a 2007 study in the European journal Human Reproduction found that men whose mothers ate significant amounts of beef during pregnancy (more than seven meals a week) had lower sperm counts.

The upside is that because hormones are allowed only in cattle, you won’t see traces showing up in chicken or pork. The bad news is that chickens and pigs are routinely given antibiotics both to prevent disease from break-ing out in overcrowded barns and to make them grow faster. So fast, in fact, that the chickens often become top-heavy and can not support their own weight, and instead of a traditional life span of several years, the birds are sent for slaughter in just two months. The aggressive use of these animal antibiotics has been linked to the emergence of new strains of human infections, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), that don’t respond to antibiotic treatments.

Fortunately, buying hamburgers without hormones and chicken breasts and bacon without antibiotics is simple—that is, as long as you are willing to pay more for either USDA-certified organic meat, in which the use of hormones and antibiotics is prohibited, or meat that specifically states “no hormones administered” or “no antibiotics added.”

Avoiding artificial hormones in milk is also becoming easier: Safety concerns and consumer pressure have prompted more than half of the country’s 100 largest dairies to discontinue using the genetically modified bovine growth hormone rBGH. Both Walmart and supermarket chain Kroger have banned the hormone from their store-brand milk, while Dannon and Yoplait-Colombo don’t allow it in their yogurt. The result is that rBGH, which was once given to some 22 percent of US cows, is now used on less than 15 percent of cattle, according to Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. Look for dairy products with labels that read “rBGH-free” or “no bovine growth hormones.”

Threat #3: Genetically modified crops

In consumer surveys, a majority of Americans say they don’t want to eat genetically modified (GM) food. But the reality is that most of us already have. According to the FDA, as much as 75 percent of processed food in the US may contain components from crops that have had a new gene inserted into their DNA to make them more adaptive to various chemical herbicides and insecticides. And genetic modification has become so prevalent among the core food crops—soybeans, corn, and canola—that most processed food, except for USDA-certified organic products, now contains ingredients from GM crops.

Monsanto, the world’s largest provider of GM seeds, other biotech companies, and the FDA maintain there is no real difference between GM and non-GM crops. But scientists who’ve done independent research on GM foods think otherwise. In 2008, Jürgen Zentek, PhD, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Vienna, conducted a study funded by the Austrian government that found that mice that ate GM corn and produced four litters had either lower levels of fertility, smaller litters, or no offspring at all, raising concerns about endocrine-disrupting compounds in GM corn.

Experts who advocate against GM crops, 48 percent of which are planted in the US, argue that studies conducted to sway FDA approval for genetic modification back in 1993 were inadequate. To wit, in January a French molecular biologist at the University of Caen was given the unprecedented opportunity to analyze the raw data from one of Monsanto’s own safety tests. He found that after three months of eating three strains of GM corn, mice showed evidence of liver and kidney damage. Monsanto does not publicly release data from its studies, and the information became available only after a successful legal challenge in Germany by anti-GM groups.

Avoiding GM foods requires either buying all organic or looking on ingredient labels for any corn, soybean, canola, and cotton derivatives, which have a high likelihood of being GM. This includes soy protein, soybean oil, soy isolate, corn syrup, corn gluten, and cottonseed oil. Whole fruits and vegetables, however, are usually not genetically modified, with the exception of approximately 50 percent of Hawaiian papaya and a small amount of summer squash. “Unlike field corn—which is used for animal feed, processed into syrups, or used for ethanol—sweet corn, or corn on the cob, is rarely genetically modified, says Jeffrey Smith, author of Seeds of Deception (Yes! Books, 2003).

Threat #4: Pesticides

It’s no secret that residues from the powerful chemicals used to kill insects and weeds end up on and in our fruits and vegetables. But most people would be surprised to find out that there can be as many as 10 different chemicals on a single piece of fruit, even after it’s been washed. In 2008, a USDA analysis of several batches of domestic and imported peaches identified a total of 51 pesticides, six of them banned for produce sold in the United States. “If you eat an apple, a pear, and some strawberries in one day, you’re going to get 10 or 20 pesticides,” says Richard Wiles, executive director at the Environmental Working Group, which has done extensive testing of pesticide residues.

While farm groups and the Environmental Protection Agency argue that the number of pesticides and herbicides—most of which have been classified as known neurotoxins—used on fruits and vegetables is too insignificant to pose a health threat, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest otherwise. For instance, one study published last year in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that people who lived within 500 meters of fields sprayed with the fungicide maneb and the herbicide paraquat between 1974 and 1999 had an alarming 75 percent increased risk for Parkinson’s disease.

Scientists say they are particularly concerned about pesticide exposure in pregnant women and young children. “Among farm workers in agricultural regions, when there is pesticide exposure during pregnancy, there’s a much higher risk of certain mental-development delays,” says Asa Bradman, PhD, an environmental health scientist at the University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health. “We know that for many toxins, low-level exposure may not harm an adult, but for a fetus, whose developing brain and endocrine system are so sensitive, it’s a whole different story.” A study in the February 2009 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives found that children who lived in homes where common household insecticides were used to combat termites, fleas, ants, cockroaches, and other pests were twice as likely to develop brain cancer as those who lived in homes where no insecticides were used.

The best way to lower your pesticide intake is to choose organic fruits and vegetables—which must be grown without chemical pesticides or insecticides—as often as possible. A University of Washington study discovered that preschool children who ate conventional diets had nine times more pesticide in their urine than children who consumed organic fruit and juices 75 percent of the time. The study also noted that children whose parents used pesticides in home gardens had significantly higher urinary chemical concentrations than those who had gardens but did not use any pesticides.

Threat #5: Fish farms

With more than 50 percent of the world’s seafood now coming from fish farms, there’s a good chance that the salmon you ate last night was raised in a large aquatic pen, not caught from the ocean. According to a study last year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the production of farmed fish nearly tripled between 1995 and 2007.

This shift has helped boost the availability of fresh fish, evidenced by the number of supermarkets today that boast a sushi counter. But fish farms have also changed the health profile of a highly nutritious food group. In addition to heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, farmed varieties often contain high levels of unhealthy residues: Fish farmers frequently use antibiotics to control disease in crowded pens and use pesticides to kill parasites and fungi.

And if your seafood is imported—as is 80 percent of seafood sold in the US—it may even contain harmful aquatic drugs banned by the FDA. In early 2009, the Pew Environment Group obtained FDA documents revealing that three Chilean salmon farming companies, including two of that country’s largest producers, used unapproved drugs like the antibiotics flumequine and oxolinic acid, as well as the pesticide emamectin benzoate. The group also warned that it has evidence that similar drugs are being used on salmon farms in Canada, Norway, and Scotland.

Some farmed fish also have increased levels of harmful environmental toxins. Ronald Hites, PhD, an environmental chemist at Indiana University, published two studies reporting that farmed salmon had significantly higher levels of PCBs, dioxins, and the flame-retardant chemical PBDE than wild-caught salmon. Hites explains that higher levels of carcinogenic chemicals in farmed salmon are a result of their diet—namely, other fish caught in polluted waters.

Since there are no organic standards for seafood, groups like Pew and the Center for Food Safety recommend buying wild-caught and domestic fish whenever possible. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafoodwatch.org offers printable pocket shopping guides and downloadable iPhone apps that can help you decide which fish are the healthiest for you and our world’s oceans.

Clones and GM Animals

In the ongoing quest to make food production increasingly efficient and high tech, two big advances may be coming to a supermarket near you. Today, there are some 600 cloned cows, chickens, and pigs living on farms across the US, according to Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports. While these animals aren’t likely to enter the food supply—creating new clones is quite expensive and many food companies have said they won’t buy cloned meat—their offspring most likely will become food, and in many instances already have. In January 2008, the FDA gave the go-ahead for meat and milk from cloned livestock to be sold without labeling. Buying organic is the only way consumers can know for sure that their milk is not coming from a clone or their meat from the progeny of a clone.

GM animals, on the other hand, have yet to be OK’d by the FDA. But there are roughly two dozen applications vying for FDA approval, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization. These include salmon that’s been genetically engineered to grow twice as fast as normal and the so-called “Enviropig,” which reportedly can reduce phosphorus pollution by being able to digest phosphorous-rich feed.

The Dirty Dozen of Produce

The Environmental Working Group has identified the top 12 fruits and vegetables most likely to have the highest pesticide residues, along with 15 conventional produce choices that typically have lower chemical levels. More information on the type and quantity of pesticides that have been detected by the USDA on more than 90 foods can be found on the Pesticide Action Network’s whatsonmyfood.org.

Buy Organic

  • Celery
  • Peaches
  • Strawberries
  • Apples
  • Blueberries
  • Nectarines
  • Bell peppers
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Cherries
  • Potatoes
  • Grapes (imported)

OK To Buy Conventional When Organic is Available

  • Onions
  • Avocados
  • Sweet corn
  • Pineapples
  • Mangoes
  • Asparagus
  • Peas
  • Kiwifruit
  • Cabbage
  • Eggplant
  • Cantaloupe
  • Watermelon
  • Grapefruit
  • Honeydew
  • Sweet potatoes

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