Bad news today from an investigation conducted by Consumers Union that was released on the web and will be published in the January issue of the nonprofit’s magazine, Consumer Reports. Tests on pork chops and ground pork, bought in six cities under a variety of labels, showed high rates of contamination with a range of bacteria, many of which were antibiotic-resistant — and also showed evidence of a drug so controversial that it is banned in some other countries.
This has been my week: Oh, wow: I should write about that. No, wait — that. Damn, new news; I’ll blog this paper instead. Except, hold on — this one is great too…
So to solve my indecision before the week ends, here you go: Most of this week’s most interesting news, in round-up form.
This news is going to be everywhere today, but it’s solidly in the topics I care about (and you readers care about — at least I think you do), so I’m going to cover it regardless.
The magazine Consumer Reports is publishing a report and poll on US consumers’ attitudes toward the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. From everyone’s reactions when I write about this, I thought people cared about this issue, but the numbers are a little surprising even to me: 86 percent of shoppers in a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults said they wanted meat raised without antibiotics to be available in their local supermarkets. [Read more…]
I get this a lot: “I understand that the things you write about are important — but they’re so depressing. Couldn’t you write some, you know, good news, for a change?”
So here you go: a solutions post for once, instead of another problem. (But I can’t promise to make a habit of it.)
The data-dense graphic above may be too reduced to read (here’s the really big version), but its intricacy masks a simple and fairly dire message: The global trade in food has become so complex that we have almost lost the ability to trace the path of any food sold into the network. And, as a result, we are also about to lose the ability to track any contaminated food, or any product causing foodborne illness.
The graphic, and warning, come from a paper published last week in PLoS ONE by researchers from the United States, United Kingdom, Hungary and Romania. The group used United Nations food-trade data — along with some math that I do not pretend to understand — to describe an “international agro-food trade network” (IFTN) with seven countries at its center, but a dense web of connections with many others. Each of the seven countries, they find, trades with more than 77 percent of all the 207 countries on which the UN gathers information.
As a result, they say: “The IFTN has become a densely interwoven complex network, creating a perfect platform to spread potential contaminants with practically untraceable origins.”
A tantalizing prospect surfaced yesterday. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis tweeted a link to a Sept. 13 story from an online agricultural trade journal that said, in its entirety:
China’s Ministry of Agriculture has announced a forthcoming ban on antibiotics as growth promoters in animal feed. The ban is supported by the academic community, which believes that without antibiotics in animal feed, the health of animals will be better promoted, microbes’ resistance to antibiotics will be lowered and food will become safer to eat. Recent statistics show that in 2006 China produced 210,000 tons of antibiotics, and 97,000 tons were added to animal feed. Today it is estimated that 400,000 tons are produced annually.
So, first: If this story is accurate, it would be huge news. But, second: The story lists no sources and is almost a month old; in that month, there has been no other major coverage of this decision that I can find — which means a responsible reporter (which I try to be) needs to do some digging rather than pushing the link along.
Another week, another food-safety crisis in China. Several news networks — Associated Press, Australian Press and Xinhua — report that 11 people have died and anywhere from 120 to 140 were sickened by contaminated vinegar. Stoking tensions further is the reason so many were poisoned at once: The victims live in a small village in far-west Xinjiang province and are ethnic Uighurs, the minority group whose desire for political independence from Beijing led to brutally suppressed riots in 2009. Uighurs are overwhelmingly Muslim, and most of the small village, about 150 people, had gathered for an iftar meal to break their Ramadan fast.
The poisoning appears to be due to ethylene glycol; the vinegar had been stored in barrels that previously contained antifreeze. According to the AP, investigators haven’t yet been able to say whether the vinegar was put in the barrels out of ignorance, making it a problem of accidental contamination, or deliberately by an unscrupulous producer seeking to cut corners.
In China, more than 2,000 tons of fresh pork and pork products — at a minimum, 4 million pounds — have been recalled because the meat has tested positive for clenbuterol, a stimulant that is illegal in food-producing animals not only in China but in Europe and the United States. Another 1.6 million pigs are being tested.
The story has been unfolding for the past week without much notice from Western media, but it has been heavily covered in China, even in English-language media there.
Clenbuterol, which lingers in muscle tissue for months and concentrates in some organs, is hazardous to humans because of its stimulant properties: It revs up the heart and gives you the shakes, and can be especially dangerous for pregnant women. (Here’s the data sheet from the Food Safety and Inspection Service.) If it sounds familiar, that’s because its stimulant qualities also make it a performance enhancer — and thus a banned drug for elite athletes, including a listing on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Prohibited List. Tour de France winner Alberto Contador was temporarily banned from cycling this year after a positive clenbuterol test, and US Olympic swimmer Jessica Hardy was found positive for the drug in 2008 (a finding she blamed on an allegedly tainted supplement). Clenbuterol’s a common subject on body-building forums (here’s one example) for its perceived ability to build lean muscle while diminishing fat.
And that may have been the motivation in China: putting lean weight, inexpensively, on pigs.
Here’s what’s known:
On March 17, the Chinese TV network CCTV reported that 19 pigs at a slaughterhouse in Henan province, part of a lot of 689, had tested positive for clenbuterol in their urine. About 20 people — farmers, middlemen, quarantine inspectors and a buyer for the processing company, Jiyuan Shuanghui Food Co., Ltd. — were arrested.
On March 18, Xinhua News reported that the number of positive tests had grown to 52 pigs out of 1,512, on nine farms tested, and the number of people in police custody had grown to 30. Plus, the scandal had spread to a second province, Jiangsu, after 20 randomly picked pigs out of 264 from Henan tested positive at a slaughterhouse in Nanjing. Concern over the brewing scandal drew the central government’s Ministry of Commerce into the issue; the agency urged the company where the tainted pork was first found — which happens to be a subsidiary of China’s largest meat processor — to suspend production and start an internal investigation.
On March 19, the central government convened an emergency meeting of pig farmers, meat processors and food retailers, and two days later ordered provincial authorities to start a crackdown that extends to checking backyard pigs.
And on March 25, the government released its annual food safety plan and put special emphasis on banning clenbuterol and tracking down illegal users.
Notably, the more-free parts of the Chinese media are pushing the government to do more. China Daily editorialized on Thursday:
Why can’t quarantine workers go to pig farms in a random way to check the pigs? Why do they have to wait for the pig urine sent by pig raisers? Why aren’t pigs randomly checked immediately before they are butchered? What is both funny and sad is the fact that a local bureau of animal husbandry in central China’s Henan Province checked a problematic pig farm and 98.8 percent of the pigs tested were passed safe on March 15. But an investigation by reporters after the check found that the farm still feeds pigs clenbuterol, which was banned nine years ago.
The revelation that pigs are being fed growth hormones that are considered harmful to humans so the animals develop more muscle and less fat has shaken consumers’ confidence in pork, just as the melamine scandal did with milk. Anyone involved, whether pig raisers or quarantine checkers, must be brought to justice…
The general public wants to be told how problematic pigs can pass a series of tests before they are butchered and how the meat containing harmful substances can go through a series of tests and still end up in the mouths of consumers.They also want to know whether the culprits, including pig raisers who have fed pigs harmful chemicals and those who took money to turn a blind eye to the problematic pigs and meat will get the punishments they deserve.
This isn’t the first time clenbuterol has been found in pork in China. In 2009, 70 people in Guangdong province were hospitalized for stimulant poisoning after eating organ meats from contaminated pigs; in 2006, more than 300 people in Shanghai were sickened. In January, two months before this scandal surfaced, the AP’s Alexa Olesen wrote a prescient long takeout on the complexity of controlling clenbuterol abuse, especially in rural areas.
Here’s a question: Activism for safe food in the United States was arguably ignited by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a novel that served as an expose of the contamination and filthy conditions he witnessed working undercover in Chicago’s meatpacking plants. There was such a public outcry at his revelations that the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the first US food-safety legislation, was written and passed in the same year the book came out. The Jungle was so influential that, 105 years later, it is still in print.
I wonder: Who will write a Jungle for China? And given the repression that seems to be practiced against whistleblowers there, if anyone did, would it see print?
Perhaps you remember the Great Tomato Scare of 2008.
It started in mid-May, when the New Mexico Department of Health told the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that it had identified a Salmonella cluster: four people who were infected with an identical, uncommon strain called Salmonella Saintpaul, and another 15 who seemed to be part of the same outbreak but whose infections hadn’t been characterized enough for authorities to be certain. Then there were cases in Texas, and then more cases in the Navaho Nation. By June 9, 2008, there were at least 150 cases nationwide; by July 1, the count was 869. By the time the outbreak ended in late August, there would be 1,499 victims — almost certainly an undercount — in 43 states. Two people died.
The outbreak was chaotic. On June 3, based on some early studies, the Food and Drug Administration warned people in New Mexico and Texas against eating certain types of raw tomatoes; on June 7, the FDA expanded the warning to nationwide. Investigators were puzzled by tomatoes causing an outbreak so early in the season, and hypothesized that they must have been grown in a warm climate area — maybe California, Florida or Mexico. Then they were troubled by how widely the outbreak spread. Because tomatoes can come from so many different places, they wondered whether the source of the contamination wasn’t the growing fields, but rather a packing house or a wholesaler where fruit from many different farms came together.
Consumers were just as confused. The FDA said raw red plum, red Roma and red round tomatoes were no-gos, but cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and tomatoes sold on the vine were OK. People were unsure what was safe to eat and from where it was safe to buy. The entire enormous tomato industry — 8 billion pounds per year in the US — ground to a halt.
There was just one problem: The cause of the outbreak wasn’t tomatoes at all. [Read more…]