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: 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.

''...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...