Wednesday, September 25, 2013


This has not been a good month for Garden Fresh Foods, Inc. of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This nice-sounding, family-owned company, has been forced to issue a huge and progressively expanding recall of a wide range of its ready-to-eat foods. They include potato salads, chicken salads, pasta salads, ham salads, salsa, slaw, dips and various spreads. The products were distributed in the following states: WI, MN, IA, IL, OH, IN, TX, FL, MA, MO, MI, PA, AZ, CA, and distributed to a large number of retail stores (including Target) and to food services.

The reason for this recall is a finding of Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. Yes, that is the bacterium that pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems need to avoid at all costs.

But it is not the first time Garden-Fresh has been involved in a big recall. Nor will it probably be the last. There was another similar recall at the end of July, 2012, also because of the same bacterium, with seven tons of salads recalled. Nor is it the only company making such convenience foods which has had such problems.

Ready-to-eat foods are particularly prone to this kind of contamination. They often contain a large number of ingredients, from a range of suppliers. Often such ingredients as onion, cilantro, or whatever, ready them in already chopped up form, having passed through various processing equipment. Back in 2012, the culprit ingredient was onions. Let's see what it is this time.

As for "garden fresh" - forget it. Often ready-to-eat foods sit around for weeks, giving bacteria a chance to grow and multiply. And yes, some of them can do it in the refrigerator - Listeria monocytogenes being one of these.

Bottom line - If you are pregnant or weak, elderly, have a weakened immune system because of illness, avoid all ready-to-eat foods - not just those of Garden-Fresh. Take a few minutes more, and make it yourself. Your health is worth the effort.

To your good health,


Friday, September 13, 2013


Today I came across an unusual passing reference to the cooking chemical acrylamide in an on-line discussion of harmful health effects of eating grains. No comment on the "unhealthy grains" issue at the moment, but I do want to touch on acrylamide. Never heard of it? Don't feel badly. You have company. Most people who are exposed to it every day in their food don't know about it.

Actually, I am always surprised that people in the U.S. who are concerned about their health, don't pay more attention to this issue. After all, studies have shown acrylamide to be both carcinogenic (cancer-causing) and genotoxic ( causing damage of, or mutation of DNA ). But no, we are not totally sure yet. More research is still being done. After all, acrylamide was only identified in food in 2002, and "the big C" is not something that develops overnight. Currently, most of the concern about acrylamide is in European nations, particularly Sweden, Denmark, France and Germany - not in the U.S. or Canada.

So what exactly is it? Acrylamide is formed through something called the "Maillard reaction" which takes place when certain starchy foods are cooked (including baking, frying, and roasting) at high temperatures.

What is concerning is that studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have found that a lot of us carry this chemical in our bodies. True, some of this body burden of acrylaminde could be due to the fact that it is also present in cigarette smoke. But, there is no denying that it is also all over the place in the North American food supply. Baked items ( including your morning toast) are on that list. So are French fries and potato chips, plus a lot of others, including prunes and other dried fruit, prune juice, black olives, asparagus, and, oh dear,.... coffee. Just about everyone who eats cooked or processed foods gets a bit of acrylamide one way or the other.

There is more about acrylamide in The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food. The main discussion is in the chapter on Fruits and Vegetables with a box on "Don't Burn Those French Fries."

By the way, several of my predictions in the book have turned out to be correct, but not on acrylamide. I really thought that the U.S. would recognize this food risk sooner than it has. True, the FDA is keeping an eye on it and following what is being done in Europe, but all this is still very low key, hush, hush. No wonder, if it does prove to cause harm to humans (as well as test animals), this will have big dollar implications for the food industry.

In the meantime, the decision is yours. Personally, I keep this issue in mind, but don't go to extremes. For one thing, I don't eat burnt baked goods or potatoes, and I have never like prunes or asparagus. But I have to confess that I still drink coffee. Oh well...

To your good health,


Monday, September 9, 2013


Can mold in food make you sick? The answer is "yes." But it doesn't happen all the time. Most molds in food are harmless, except perhaps to people who are very allergic. But then there are those other nasty molds, or, more correctly called "fungi," that can produce very bad toxins called "mycotoxins" with interesting names like "aflatoxin," "fumonisin," "vomitoxin," "zealareno," and "ochratoxin." Even they don't do it all the time. Just sometimes, when the conditions are right (think, "warm and moist"). There are about 300 of these different types of toxins, and more are being discovered all the time. Overall, we know very little about the dangers of mold in food.

So let's turn to mold in relation to Chobani Yogurt. That SO fashionable Chobani Greek Yogurt seems to have come down with a bad case of gas, with some containers swelling, fizzing, leaking, or even exploding. This has prompted a large recall of its products, and lead to a lot of bad publicity and loss of credibility.

I have always been a great admirer of the very clever marketing job done by Chobani. Eating its products is not only guaranteed to be healthy, but a socially rewarding activity. This unlucky recent event will certainly test its fan club in spite of all the efforts made to repair the damage to its image.

The cause of all this gas and bloating in the yogurt, has been identified as a mold called Mucor circinelloides. This mold is often present in the environment and can turn up in dairy, and on fruits and vegetables. So is it one of the "bad" molds?

True, the fungus has been known to occasionally cause rather nasty skin (and even tooth) infections. But the company claims, quoting one expert source, that this mold has never been associated with causing food borne illness and that the mold is therefore totally harmless in its yogurt. So why are all these Chobani yogurt eaters saying it made them ill? Are they just imagining it?

At this point we don't know. But, not so fast Chobani. Let me remind you of a few things. First, the cause of most food borne illness is never identified, and molds are not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when investigators are looking for a cause. Secondly, bacteria, viruses, molds and other organisms, keep evolving and changing, and there is no guarantee that a mold which has not been identified as producing deadly toxins, will not be later found to produce them. Thirdly, moldy foods often have bacteria growing alongside them. I wonder whether, having found the mold to be present, researchers stopped looking for another, possibly bacterial, contaminant. We may never know.

So, when it comes to food borne illness, never say "never."

To your good health,

Sunday, September 1, 2013


There is a good chance, that beef prices will be going up soon in the U.S. So, if you are a red meat eater, you may want to enjoy your cheap beef while you can. Or, maybe not.

The reason for a possible price increase is a reported shortage of beta-agonists (B-agonists). These are naturally occurring and synthetic compounds that are classified as phenethanolamines . They are put in the feed of most American beef cows. The beef industry argues that they are nothing more than "simple feed ingredients". But, most people think of them as "growth-promotants."

The beef and pharmaceutical industries estimate that about 70 percent of cattle brought to the slaughterhouse in the United States are fed beta-agonists. (They are also used in pork production in the U.S.). These "feed ingredients" help cattle make the most of the food they eat, resulting in more lean muscle instead of fat. (Is this the basis for the next diet drug for humans?). But they also help beef cattle farmers save on cattle feed, which accounts for almost three-quarters of their costs. Yes, nice. No wonder the industry loves them. They can produce more beef with less cattle. And, increase their profits.

By the way, back in 1989, the European Union (EU) banned all B-agonists for use in meat animals. As usual, the United States bowed to industry pressure. But who is to lose, since these growth-promotants or feed ingredients or whatever you call them, have been shown by numerous studies to neither harm the cattle or humans who eat the meat?

Or, do they? Recently there has been some re-thinking of this issue. What happened is that it was noticed that many cattle who had been fed the most popular beta-agonist, called Zilmax, which is produced by Merck, were turning up for slaughter lame, or, pretty close to lame. Now that's a major problem. In March 2009, the USDA, in the interest of food safety, banned the slaughter of so-called "downer"cattle (those too sick or lame to walk).

The "factory" cattle farmers are nervous. Even more so after mid-August, when Merck suspended its sales of this very lucrative product (just under 160 million dollars in the past year alone. The suspension covered both the United States and Canada. But don't for a moment imagine that that is the end of it.

Eli Lilly, another big pharma making beta-agonist was (secretly) delighted. The demand for their similar drug, called Optaflexx, has increased enormously. But - although there are contradictory reports - it seems that there will not be enough Optaflexx to go around, at least for a while. That means that some U.S. cattle farmers will have to go without. They would will have to feed the cattle more, and still get a less favorable price for them at the slaughterhouse, because of reduced weight gain. For us, consumers, that could well mean an increase in beef prices.

And what about the health implications of all this? Are those beta-agonists that are being fed to our cattle safe to eat, week after week, and year after year? After reading the research studies (sort-of mind boggling in their technicalities) I realize that this is a much more complex issue than reflected in recent news reports. There are beta-agonists, and then there are beta-agonists. What I am afraid of is that if there is a shortage of Optaflexx, and the suspension on Zilmax continues, desperate cattle farmers may turn to other illegal beta-agonists ("early-generation beta-agonists") which have been shown to be retained longer in the system and be more dangerous to cattle (liver, kidneys, heart, lungs), and maybe to humans.

That's factory food for you. It's all about money.

To your good health,