Sunday, May 12, 2013
Chicken and rice is one of the world's favorite meals. I have eaten it in more countries than I can remember, all over Latin America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
In the United States, consumption of chicken has increased pretty steadily. Currently, over 80 pounds of chicken is eaten per person per year. In all, some 75 percent of Americans eat it regularly. It is a relatively cheap meat, fairly neutral and adaptable in terms of flavor, and easily prepared. And, it can also contain arsenic. So can rice.
Recently researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, found arsenic in chicken that probably got there from the anti-parasitic drug Roxarsone. This drug was widely used in American industrial poultry production. It kept poultry free of parasites, allowing them to gain weight faster, and gave the flesh a pleasanter color. Roxarsone has now been suspended (though not banned) in the U.S., while the government is deciding what to do. Other similar anti-parasitic drugs, still on the market may also add to arsenic levels in out chicken lunch or dinner.
If you have read The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food, you would have known about this years ago. The box on p.149 in the Meat and Poultry chapter, titled "Arsenic-Laced Poultry" summarizes the issue. And, as for arsenic in rice, the book also looks at that in the chapter on Grains. Additionally, there are also a couple of earlier posts on arsenic in rice on this blog.
So how serious is all this? After all, the amounts are minute, particularly in the case of chicken, but with considerable variation between chickens. Even organic chicken may contain some - though much less. Chicken livers contain more than the meat itself.
But, even a little more, particularly if combined with arsenic in rice and maybe a bit of arsenic in your water...well...who knows. The Johns Hopkins University, School of Public Health, website reminds us of the risks. Quoting: Chronic inorganic arsenic exposure has been shown to cause lung, bladder and skin cancers and has been associated with other conditions, as well, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cognitive deficits, and adverse pregnancy outcomes.
So, should you stop eating chicken, and especially chicken and rice? Probably that would be going overboard. But, you may not want to eat it every day either. And, if you can afford it, organic chicken is safer.
To your good health,
Saturday, May 4, 2013
(Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg)
Cases of the latest "bird flu" are increasing, although with some hope that control measures (such as closing of live poultry markets) are slowing down the spread. The human incidents of H7N9 virus are still all in China and Taiwan. Most are in Shanghai, Zheijang and Jiangsu.
In all there are believed to be around 130 confirmed cases now and 27 deaths. But, as has been discussed in previous posts, there have doubtless been many times more than those in the official statistics. And, there will be still more in the days and maybe months, to come.
No conclusions have been reached as to how this virus is transmitted. Human-to-human transmission is still a question mark, but with research ongoing. Handling diseased live poultry may be one route (it was with the previous bird flu). However, there is apparently no evidence that you could catch it from prepared food.
There is also nothing yet to indicate that food imports from China, containing cooked poultry (such as frozen entrees, pet foods), are likely to become a route for spreading the disease in other countries. Countries such as the U.S, Canada, do not import live poultry from China. Some nations that do, have stopped such imports for the time being.
But let's keep our eye on the situation. These viruses that move from birds to humans are very frightening, particularly because of their very high fatality rate.
To your good health,
Friday, May 3, 2013
I don't recall as bad a year for frozen pizza as 2013 in the U.S. And, and we aren't even half-way through the year yet. It's enough to make you give up eating pizza. That would put you in the minority of the American population. According to the website "Fun Facts" 94 percent of Americans eat pizza regularly and on the average, each American eats about 46 pizza slices a year.
The most recent pizza recall is by Nestle. Nestle has recalled specific production codes/dates of CALIFORNIA PIZZA KITCHEN or DIGIORNO pizzas. They were distributed nationwide. The reason - bits of plastic in the pizzas, which apparently entered with the spinach that was used.
And here we were, thinking that eating veggies like spinach on your pizza made it more healthy! By the way - also according to Fun Facts, women are more likely to order or buy pizza with vegetables than are men.
Back to the pizza recalls this year. Nestle has not been the only pizza distributor with problems. At the end of March this year, Farm Rich Corporation had to recall Farm Rich frozen mini pizza slices and Farm Rich mozzarella bites in a pizzeria style crust because of discovery of E.coli 0121 bacteria. Overall, I guess those were worse. Biting into bits of plastic may chip your tooth or scratch your throat, but if you ate the E.coli with your pizza, you could end up in hospital.
And that's not all the frozen Pizza woes for the year. Back in January, Annie's Homegrown Inc., of Berkeley California, also recalled a lot of their frozen pizzas. They said the cause was "extraneous materials." They were certainly "extraneous" - bits of metal in the dough are not a normal ingredient. They came from the flour that was used: problems with equipment at the flour mill.
Let's hope that is the end of the pizza problems for the year. But don't hold your breath.
To your good health,
Friday, April 26, 2013
Are Mexican cucumbers unsafe to eat? The current wave of cucumber-linked Salmonella-illnesses in the United States is believed to be caused by cucumbers imported from Mexico. This is the second time this year that the U.S. has received Salmonella contaminated cucumbers from this trading partner. Is it safer to just not eat them?
In February, we had a small cucumber recall by Altiza Inc, of Chula Vista, California. The contaminated product, Malichita brand cucumbers, were only distributed in California. Although I found no specific statement as to where these cucumbers were grown, my research suggests that they probably came from Agropecuario Malichita. This company grows and exports cucumbers as well as other produce, including to the U.S. and Canada. All of its farms are all located in Mexico. In 2006, there was also an outbreak of Salmonella in Malachita brand cantaloupes, which were identified as originating in Mexico.
The currently ongoing illnesses in 18 states are linked to contaminated cucumbers supplied by Daniel Cardenas Izabal and Miracle Greenhouse and identified as grown in Culiacán, Mexico. These Mexican firms are now not allowed to send cucumbers into the U.S. unless they can show that the cucumbers are not contaminated with Salmonella bacteria. (I don't really know how they can prove this conclusively unless they have an independent laboratory test every cucumber - which would be impossibly costly.)
Nor are these the first cases of produce from Mexico being contaminated. It happens frequently. No wonder. So much of the fresh produce eaten in the U.S. originates in Mexico. In fact, Mexico is by far the most important supplier of fresh produce to the U.S. The U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show that fully 69% of U.S. fresh vegetable import value ($4.05 billion) and 37% of U.S. fresh fruit import value ($2.86 billion) was accounted for by Mexican imports.
So what about Mexican cucumbers? I checked the latest USDA commodity shipment data for cucumbers for the spring season, 2013. Mexico was far ahead of any other country, with 638,440,000 pounds of Mexican cucumbers ending up in the U.S.
Want to eat cucumbers? Particularly if cost is an issue, and it is the off-season in the U.S., we might have little choice. Greenhouse cucumbers are more expensive by far. But remember that any imported produce, including from Mexico, is checked and regulated by the U.S.
To your good health,
Friday, April 19, 2013
It is always nice to know you are right. But, there are times I wish I wasn't. When writing The Safe Food Handbook : How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food, I tried to be ahead of the issues in food safety - not behind. It has been the same in this blog (as in the case of the Japan - Daichii nuclear tragedy leading to radiation in food, the case of "bird flu" which is once again an issue, and the Listeria bacteria threat in our food plants).
One of the issues I stressed was the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our food - particularly in meat. This was several years ago. At that point it was an emerging and very frightening problem about which I was - and still am - particularly concerned. I also strongly oppose the U.S. practice of sub-therapeutic (preventive) use of antibiotics in industrialized livestock production for that reason, even though I am aware that it helps to keep our meat prices down.
Today, CNBC has an article by Mark Koba titled : Antibiotic-Resistant "Super-Bugs" Creep into Nation's Food Supply. This article seems to have been triggered by secondary analysis of data from the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System ( published in February) by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
The EWG concluded that that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are turning up very, very frequently in meat sold in the U.S. It was found in 81 percent of raw ground turkey, 69 percent of raw pork chops, 55 percent of raw ground beef and 39 percent of raw chicken bought over the counter in 2011. Even if this is an overestimation of our exposure in 2011, it is likely to be that much or even more in 2013. Our food regulators, and some of our politicians are aware of the problem, and trying to do something about it, but only small steps have been taken so far.
The data is scary, to say the least. If nothing else convinces you to give up eating meat, this well might. The CNBC on-line article quotes Lance B. Price, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University: "I think this is one of the greatest threats to us as a nation and the planet." I agree.
The Safe Food Handbook has more information on this food threat, particularly in the Meat and Poultry chapter, under the section "The Superbug Issue." Yes, I wish I wasn't right on this issue. But I was. I will also bet that we'll be hearing more about it in the future.
To your good health,
Saturday, April 13, 2013
Food recalls because of Listeria monocytogenes bacteria occur all the time in the U.S. It is one of the most commonly occurring "bad" bacteria in cheeses, other dairy products, ready-to-eat products such as pizzas and meat spreads, breaded chicken breasts, and deli meats. The large majority of these events never get into the news. But now one has, simply because the recall is so huge. Almost half a million pounds of various deli meats are being recalled by Manda Packing Company, located in Baker, Louisiana.
Like many food recalls, this one has expanded from the initial smaller recall. Products involved now include roast beef, ham, turkey breast, tasso pork, ham shanks, hog head cheese, corned beef, and pastrami. There is an array of brands and deli meats - too long to list in this post. But if you want more information check the FSIS/USDA site on www.fsis.usda.gov/News_&_Events/Recall_028_2013_Expanded/index.asp).
So how did this meat get contaminated? The chances are, that the bacteria did not enter in the slaughterhouse. They entered in the processing or packing plant itself, perhaps through contaminated equipment or areas. Or, through the workers in the plant.
When doing research for The Safe Food Handbook I was horrified to find that it is now believed that as many as 30 percent of meat plant workers carry this bacterium.
Listeria monocytogenes is a great survivor. It can survive, and even multiply in the refrigerator, where deli meats are stored. They could be multiplying during transport and in the store, even before the products reach to you. And, increase their numbers right in your own home, even when you are storing them correctly.
Don't think that the U.S. government isn't trying to fix the problem. In fact, both the U.S. and Canadian governments have taken measures over past years to find ways of controlling this deadly bacterium - especially in meat processing plants. But obviously, these measures do not always work. Large recalls of meat products still occur every year in both countries because of Listeria.
Yes, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are at special risk of Listeriosis. Healthy people may just get a light case, or have no symptoms at all.
There is much more information on this bacterium and on previous related food recalls on this blog. At least 105 posts mention Listeria monocytogenes in food, and 66 posts have special information for pregnant women, including the most popular post on this blog "Foods Pregnant Women Should Not Eat" which has been read by just over 18,000 people so far. You'll see deli meats on the "beware" list. But, there is a way for pregnant women (and anyone else at high risk) to eat them safely.
To your good health,
Friday, April 12, 2013
The new "bird flu" (H7N9) virus in eastern China is claiming more victims. Official statistics now estimate the number of illnesses at 43 and deaths at 11. China, and other countries, particularly the neighboring ones, continue to worry that this might be turning into the next big pandemic. In fact these days it seems to be a toss-up as to whether North Korea's threats or H7N9 is creating more jitters among governments and the public.
There are several disturbing aspects of this new virus, even apart from the fact that this virus has crossed the species barrier from animals to humans. One is that we can't really place much confidence in the numbers reported for at least two reasons - maybe three (the third one being politics, but I am not going to discuss that).
In such situations, many more illnesses always occur than ever get into the official statistics. It is the same in the United States, Britain, Canada, Europe, and elsewhere. People don't always go to the doctor, and the doctor doesn't always get around to reporting right away, even if he or she is alert for H7N9 symptoms. Or, reports get delayed in the bureacracy.
Also, we don't have much information on the nature of H7N9 symptoms. In worst human cases - those that get diagnosed - victims have reportedly have severe respiratory symptoms, high fever, tend to cough and have shortness of breath. Think of a bad case of pneumonia.
A second reason for underestimation of numbers - and for concern - is that the disease seems to be very severe in humans, even though it appears mild and almost without symptoms in birds. At the same time, we can't be sure at this point as to whether there are also milder human cases occurring which are not reported, or, a-symptomatic carriers, who could be spreading the virus - that is, if it turns out to be spread by person-to-person contact.
And of course, a major reason for concern is that we don't really know how to avoid getting ill since there is still no certainty among the experts on how you catch it. The World Health Organization's advice is currently very broad, and focuses on personal hygiene, respiratory hygiene, avoiding direct physical contact with live animals in markets or farms where there have been illnesses, being careful about how you prepare (handle) raw meat, and making sure your meat is well cooked.
Here is WHO's food safety advice as it currently stands (note by the way, that "diseased aninmals" in the case of this virus will be very difficult to identify as they usually don't show symptoms):
Influenza viruses are not transmitted through consuming well-cooked food. Because influenza viruses are inactivated by normal temperatures used for cooking (so that food reaches 70°C in all parts— "piping" hot — no "pink" parts), it is safe to eat properly prepared and cooked meat, including from poultry and game birds.
Diseased animals and animals that have died of diseases should not be eaten.
In areas experiencing outbreaks, meat products can be safely consumed provided that these items are properly cooked and properly handled during food preparation. The consumption of raw meat and uncooked blood-based dishes is a high-risk practice and should be discouraged.
Remember too, that in the case of the previous "bird flu" the evidence suggested that many people who became ill caught the virus through handling (as in preparation for cooking) of diseased birds.
The good news is that, according to Shanghai authorities,the H7N9 virus remained sensitive to the drug Tamiflu. But, to get effective treatment, you would have to be diagnosed early. That's yet another reason to be alert.
All this advice is still rather premature for much of the world, but it is better to be prepared, in case. After all, with so much travel these days, including to Shanghai, which is an important financial center, diseases travel too.
To your good health,
UPDATE: April 14 - The virus has now spread to Beijing. A case of a young girl was reported today. This is the first case outside eastern China.
UPDATE: April 16: As this post speculated, there may be milder versions of the disease in humans, or a-symptomatic carriers. This has now been discovered to be true. A 4-year old child near Beijing was declared an a-symptomatic carrier today.
UPDATE: April 16: Latest numbers are 77 confirmed illnesses and 16 deaths.