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When bad things happen to good food

Vicky Uhland

April 24, 2008

10 Min Read
When bad things happen to good food

Think you can solve your nutritional problems and improve your food quality by eating natural or organic? Not always. Recent research has uncovered a slew of chemicals in the environment and the food supply that may or may not be bad for you—depending on whom you trust.

Got rocket fuel?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has found perchlorate—a component of rocket fuel—in the nation?s food supply. Separate California Department of Agriculture and Environmental Working Group studies found perchlorate in milk and lettuce sold in California.

In a study released in November 2004, the FDA reported perchlorate in about 90 percent of 128 lettuce samples tested nationwide and in all but three of 104 milk samples, including organic milk. The agency is also testing tomatoes, carrots, cantaloupe and spinach.

?Perchlorate contamination appears to be a problem across all agriculture, whether conventional or organic methods are employed,? says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, perchlorate has also been found in 35 states, and more than 11 million people have perchlorate in their drinking water at 4 parts per billion or higher. Leakage from an old rocket-fuel plant dumps perchlorate into the Colorado River, which supplies water to several Western states, affecting both organic and conventional farms.

Studies show perchlorate can affect the thyroid and hinder children?s development. The FDA study found average perchlorate levels in lettuce ranging between 7.76 parts per billion and 11.9 parts per billion. Milk samples, most of which were collected at grocery stores, had an average perchlorate level of 5.76 parts per billion. The organic milk tested had 11.3 parts per billion of perchlorate.

The Environmental Protection Agency?s proposed standard for acceptable perchlorate levels is 1 part per billion, but the National Academy of Sciences said in January that people can ingest as much as 7 milligrams of perchlorate per kilogram of body weight daily without adverse effects. According to EWG, that translates into 2.5 parts per billion.

In the meantime, in 2004 the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment set a perchlorate standard of 6 parts per billion. And a recent study by the University of California, Irvine, found that healthy adults weren?t harmed by perchlorate levels as high as 100 parts per billion.

But UCI professor and study committee member Ronald Shank cautioned, ?Clearly more research should be conducted related to exposure to perchlorate, particularly with pregnant women and other susceptible individuals [including children].?

Organic Valley Family of Farms, one of the largest producers of organic milk, recently tested well water on its farms in California, Oregon, Maine and Minnesota, but isn?t releasing results because uniform perchlorate standards haven?t been set, says Chief Marketing Officer Theresa Marquez. ?Let me emphasize that one test does not tell a story. At 10 parts per billion there is no detectable [perchlorate] residue [in the wells tested]. ?There is clearly a need to establish the benchmark for what we should test for and where the health risk is,? Marquez says. ?What we did discover is we need a full-blown testing program, so we will also be testing for nitrates in wells [on Organic Valley farms].?

The FDA recommends that consumers not change their diets until EPA standards for perchlorate are set. Because perchlorate is found in irrigation water, consumers can?t necessarily avoid the chemical by eating organic foods. But shoppers wary of ingesting rocket fuel can stock up on bottled water—the 2004 FDA study found that perchlorate contamination in bottled water was so limited, it couldn?t be measured in 49 of 51 samples.

PBDEs and PCBs in salmon
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers—the stuff found in chemical flame retardants—are showing up in farm-raised salmon worldwide and in wild Chinook salmon in Oregon and British Columbia, according to an August 2004 study published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal. And a January 2004 study by the same team found high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, a known carcinogen, in farm-raised salmon.

Both studies, conducted by researchers at Indiana University, Cornell University, the State University of New York at Albany, the Midwest Center for Environmental Science and Public Policy, and AXYS Analytical Services, analyzed 700 farmed and wild salmon samples from around the world. Except for the Chinook salmon, the study concluded wild fish were less contaminated with PBDEs and PCBs than farmed fish. Salmon farmed in Europe were, on average, two and a half times more contaminated with PBDEs than North American salmon, the study found.

Study authors speculated the chemical contamination came from the farmed salmon?s food, which includes ground-up fish that could contain PBDEs and PCBs. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that researchers were surprised to find high levels of PBDEs in wild Chinook salmon from British Columbia. But Chinook are high in the food chain and grow to be quite large, which could explain why the PBDEs accumulated in them, says study lead author Ronald Hites in the Sun-Times. Hite is a distinguished professor at Indiana University?s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

PBDEs and PCBs concentrate in fatty tissue, so the EPA recommends removing a fish?s skin and allowing fat to drip off while cooking to reduce chemical exposure.

Toxic Teflon?
Teflon, though once used in reference to President Reagan, is supposed to stick to pans, not humans. But a study, published in July 2004 in Environmental Science and Technology, discovered fluoropolymers, which are found in Teflon and Gore-Tex, in varying degrees in the blood of people tested on four continents. Concentrations were highest in the United States and Poland and lowest in India, concluded the 11 researchers from 10 nations. An earlier study conducted by 3M, which previously manufactured Teflon, indicated that up to 90 percent of Americans may have the chemicals in their blood.

Fluoropolymers and other Teflon ingredients have been linked to cancer, liver damage and developmental problems in animals, but human research is inconclusive.

Also last July, the EPA filed a complaint against Teflon manufacturer DuPont, charging ?multiple failures to report information to EPA about substantial risk of injury to human health or the environment from a chemical during a period beginning in June of 1981 through March of 2001.? DuPont agreed to a $340 million-plus settlement, provided the company didn?t have to admit liability. The settlement includes a $5 million study into whether Teflon ingredients cause disease in humans.

The EPA complaint says that in 1981, DuPont observed perfluoro-octanoic acid, or PFOA, in blood samples taken from pregnant workers at the company?s Teflon-producing plant in West Virginia, but didn?t report the finding to the EPA, despite a law requiring it to do so.

Also, according to the complaint, by 1991 DuPont had information that the PFOA in public water supplies in two states near Teflon plants was at ?greater level than the company?s exposure guidelines indicated would be without any effect to members of the community.?

French fry fracas
From the ?well, duh? desk?fried foods are bad for you. But maybe in more ways than you thought.

The Council for Education and Research on Toxics has filed a lawsuit against McDonald?s and Burger King in California, demanding they put cancer warning labels on their french fries because they contain acrylamide, which has been found to cause cancer in rats. The lawsuit cites California?s Proposition 65, a 1986 law that requires warning labels on products known to cause cancer and birth defects.

Acrylamide is produced when carbohydrate-rich foods are heated to high temperatures. In 2002, Swedish researchers discovered acrylamide?s cancer-causing potential. That same year, the Center for Science in the Public Interest found ?disturbingly high levels of acrylamide? in snack chips and french fries. The World Health Organization calls acrylamide a ?major concern.?

In 2004, the FDA released data on acrylamide levels in more than 750 foods. Future plans include tests on infant formulas and discussion of cooking methods that don?t create acrylamide. Preliminary results of one study, presented at a European Union-sponsored workshop in Brussels, indicated that pre-blanching or soaking potatoes in water at room temperature may reduce their acrylamide levels, according to, a British e-newsletter. Avoiding cold storage of potatoes also seemed to help. In addition, the German, Belgian and Dutch governments are researching how to drop frying temperatures while still creating crisp french fries.

The FDA?s June 2004 Action Plan for acrylamide states that the substance?s ?pervasiveness in the food supply and its true public health significance for humans is largely unknown.?

A June 2004 report commissioned by the National Toxicology Program of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences concluded that people don?t eat enough acrylamide to adversely affect human reproduction. The report, authored by the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction, found that most Americans get about 0.43 micrograms per kilogram of body weight a day of acrylamide in their diets—well less than the minimum 5,000 micrograms of acrylamide linked to birth defects in rats.

Furor over furan
Heating food not only creates acrylamides, it also produces the chemical furan. The FDA warns that ?based on high-dose animal tests, furan is considered possibly carcinogenic to humans.?

The FDA?s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition is tracking furan levels in canned and jarred food, as measured by gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. Categories tested as of May 2004 include baby food, infant formula, coffee, soups/sauces/broths/chili, canned fish, canned fruit, fruit juices and vegetables, bread, processed meats, and nuts and nut butters. View the data at

Foods with more than 50 parts per billion of furan include conventional and natural baby foods made with potatoes, garden vegetables and squash; Starbucks Yukon Blend coffee; various brands of vegetable beef soup; canned chili; and baked beans and pork and beans.

The FDA is also testing a hypothesis that furan evaporates, so heating canned or jarred foods in a pot or open container may reduce the levels of furan in all foods.

Pesticides for Junior
As if there weren?t enough evidence out there that pesticides are bad for you, now comes the Pesticide Action Network?s study that rates the nine most heavily contaminated fruits and veggies, many of which are considered ?kid friendly.? The study, ?Chemical Trespass—Pesticides in Our Bodies and Corporate Accountability,? analyzed pesticide-testing data from the Centers for Disease Control. Among its conclusions: The average child age 6 to 11 is exposed to the nerve-damaging pesticide chlorpyrifos at four times the level the EPA considers acceptable. Chlorpyrifos is used widely on peaches and apples. The report cites other ?kid-friendly? fruits and vegetables—many imported from countries with less strict pesticide laws than the United States?—with multiple pesticide residues: pears, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, celery, spinach and sweet bell peppers.

?A growing body of scientific data links prenatal pesticide exposure ? and exposure during the first years of a child?s life to a variety of health issues, including low birth weight, birth defects, abnormal neurological development and reproductive problems,? writes Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., in a May 2004 report for The Organic Center for Education and Promotion.

?Nearly three-fourths of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed most frequently by infants and children in the United States contain pesticide residues,? Benbrook says, citing the U.S. Department of Agriculture?s Pesticide Data Program testing results from 1993 to 2002.

Benbrook reports the USDA data show organic fruits and veggies are three to four times less likely to contain pesticide residues than conventional produce, and eight to 11 times less likely to contain multiple pesticide residues. But not all organic produce is equally safe. The USDA also found that imported organic produce tested from 1994 to 2002 had pesticide residue that posed relative health risks six times greater than residues found on domestic organic samples.

Vicky Uhland is a Denver-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 3/p. 66, 68, 70

About the Author(s)

Vicky Uhland

Vicky Uhland is a writer and editor based in Lafayette, Colorado.

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