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Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society, Inc.
38 East Market Street, Rhinebeck, New York 12572 USA -  845-876-2626
Vegetarian - Vegan - Animal Rights - Health - Nutrition - Environment

The mission of the Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society, Inc. is to promote the vegetarian ethic in the Mid-Hudson (New York) region, educate the community and aid anyone in the pursuit of a totally vegetarian (vegan) cruelty-free and healthful lifestyle.

Newsletters - Summer 2007 Issue

Even Vegans Should Worry About Food Safety
by Constance Young

During the past several months, print and TV headlines have boldly spread fear and confusion about the safety of our food supply [even toothpaste]. In short, some foods may be -- and indeed some foods were found to be contaminated. At first, the scares targeted foods eaten by our companion animals, but reports soon spread to include foods for human consumption.

The first reports surfaced in March 2007 with warnings that hundreds of brands of tainted pet foods were sickening and/or killing domestic dogs and cats. By April, Banfield, the nation’s largest chain of veterinary hospitals (www.banfield.net) had reviewed the records of over 615 veterinary hospitals and estimated that as many as 39,000 pets to date had become sick from contaminated pet foods.

Worse yet, 3 out of every 10,000 cats and dogs who ate the tainted foods developed kidney failure. Investigations by the Food & Drug Administration soon implicated the chemical melamine, which was found in both wheat gluten or rice protein concentrate ingredients in the recalled pet foods as well as in the urine, blood, kidneys and tissues of the infected animals. Although melamine’s use is banned in the U.S., it is used as a fertilizer in Asia. By the end of March, officials had added another chemical commonly used in pool chlorination to the list of contaminants: cyanuric acid. The final blame for most of the pet food contamination rested on either of two ingredients imported from China contained in a long list of pet foods marketed in the U.S. -- melamine-contaminated wheat gluten and rice concentrate from China.

The FDA is still on the case and has not said whether the melamine contamination was accidental or if it was added intentionally to boost the products' protein content. Although the major culprits in the recent pet food debacle were Chinese imports, it appears now that we have had continuous problems with imports of fish, pet food and other products from other countries, including Mexico, India, the Dominican Republic and Denmark.

We are also learning that the FDA only inspects about 1 percent of all food shipments. In addition, some imported toothpaste and drugs also may be tainted. Chinese officials have been on alert. The safety issue is larger than we can ever know -- in fact so large that in July the Chinese government charged and executed the former head of China's Food and Drug Administration for approving fake medicine in exchange for cash.

Locally Grown Contamination The focus on imported foods has temporarily taken our attention away from national food safety issues. During the past several months, we have had at least eight large-scale outbreaks of food contamination -- largely from bacteria or other bugs affecting the human foods supply.

An outbreak last December 2006 attributed to norovirus-tainted food eaten at an Olive Garden restaurant sickened 373 people. The previous month, E. coli contamination sickened 71 people who ate at Taco Bell restaurants in several states, resulting in 53 hospitalizations and 8 cases of kidney failure. Taco John restaurants in other states caused 54 people to fall ill from a virulent strain of E. coli. In August and September of 2006, several people became paralyzed after consuming carrot juice containing botulism toxin.

In September, E. coli contamination of bagged spinach also sickened many people. The spinach contamination is blamed on a grower in the Salinas region of California where E. coli in cattle feces from an adjacent livestock grazing area entered the water running into the fields of spinach. Most recently, botulism contamination was blamed for the recall of 90 canned and bottled meat products and chili sauces made by the Georgiabased, Castleberry Food Company. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], since September 2006 major outbreaks of food poisoning have sickened more than 1,100 people, sending hundreds to hospitals and causing at least three deaths.

They estimate that more than 76 million Americans get sick each year from eating tainted food, amounting to about 1 in 4 people.

About 1,500 deaths are caused by Salmonella or Campylobacter poisoning. Other bacterial infections, such as Listeria and a toxic strain E. coli are less common. Caliciviruses, and, less commonly, parasites such Giardia or Cryptosporidium, also cause food-borne illnesses. About 30% of all infections are due to meat contamination, but don't feel safe because you are vegan.

As occurred in the September E-coli spinach poisoning, cattle grazing in fields too close to produce can contaminate otherwise good plant food. What can we do? Food safety has become a major national priority that lawmakers are beginning to address. As it now stands, neither the FDA nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture has the authority to order mandatory recalls of tainted food but can ask companies to voluntarily recall tainted foods. Food safety is now under the jurisdiction of 12 separate federal agencies and subagencies.

The USDA is supposed to oversee meat, poultry and eggs and the FDA is responsible for most other food items. The Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Homeland Security, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and a variety of other agencies are also individually charged with some aspects of food safety. Should we establish a new federal agency for food safety alone, some ask? According to the USDA, the poultry industry in particular is notoriously unsanitary with processing plants generally exceeding federal limits for Salmonella, yet oversight is far from adequate in spite of daily inspections. While the USDA does not have the authority to close these plants, they can order them to suspend production.

The Senate is currently questioning the FDA about their response to food safety; and bills on food safety and FDA funding are clearing the House. Food-labeling laws are also up for review.

As the daily parade of tainted foods grows, so too does anger and fear, which has been most intense for people like my neighbor whose beloved cat succumbed to kidney failure and died from tainted food. Short of getting out the pots and cooking up Dog or Cat Chows, millions of pet owners are still bewildered about what to feed their charges. What can we do to personally protect ourselves and our companion animals from food-borne illnesses? Here are a few tips:

• Check sources carefully, buying locally whenever possible.

• Keep up-to-date on food recalls, regularly checking the FDA website.

• Buy organic foods whenever possible.

• Read labels carefully [for now at least I’m avoiding wheat gluten or rice concentrate unless I am certain they don't originate from China].

• Don't buy foods in bulging or dented cans or cracked jars or those with loose or bulging lids.

• Watch out for cross-contamination (Be particularly careful if someone in your household, or your pet, is not vegetarian. For example, be sure that cooked shrimp are not lying on the same bed of ice as raw fish).

• When preparing foods, wash hands, utensils, and cutting boards.

• Cooking kills most bugs.

For more information, see www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/fdunwelc.html or www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/about.htm

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