“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the center.” Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Food and food safety

I've written about food before in previous posts (here and here). But it really deserves its own post, because it is such an important part of life (to me, anyway). I have read several books about dangerous food (,Fast Food Nation, Mad Cowboy, Diet for a Dead Planet) and chemical residues in food (Fateful Harvest), and while to some degree they are alarmist, the problems are clearly real. A most recent example was evidenced by the thousands of dead and sickened pets in the huge pet food recall in the US. This was a crime for which I suspect no one will be punished. The source of the problem was traced to melamine contamination in ingredients sourced from China.
New Zealand gets a lot of food from Asia, and this concerns me because China has been repeatedly identified as poisoning people with their products (13 dead babies from fake milk powder, and at least 100 from cold medicine). Food production on a global scale depends on the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics, and we know these residues can be in or on our food. The question I haven't been able to answer to my satisfaction is, "what happens to these chemicals in our body?" The answer to this depends upon which chemical we're talking about, I'm sure. Also, there's no point denying that plants and animals contain their own toxic chemical defenses which can harm us without our intervention (pufferfish, for example). Oh by the way, in that pufferfish link- China, again, at fault for mislabelling.
The New Zealand Food Safety Authority has loads of information on their website, here. I'm not yet familiar with all of it, so can't compare to the US systems. But so far I don't know of any food recalls on Chinese imports.
I had an extension course in Cancer Biology at UCSD and prepared a talk about cancer and food, examining the literature for and against various foods causing or preventing various types of cancer. Of most interest to me, selenium may have a role in thyroid cancer (low levels may predispose to getting it). Oxidizing agents (free radicals) contribute to the development of cancer, and selenium is a free radical scavenger/ antioxidant. However, there is a correlation between the amount of food you eat and your lifespan (thin=longer life) and cancer (lots of red meat=colon cancer). Of course age is correlated with cancer. Age is also correlated with death. It's easy to forget- everybody dies someday. But I digress. You know, all I really intended to do in this post was comlain that I can't easily get canned black beans, and they're $3 a can.
The FDA has recalled 5.7 million pounds of ground beef. E. coli contaminated meat sickened 14 people, who have recovered. As long as you cook it well, E. coli will not hurt you. It's the E. coli on spinach that scares me, because spinach is packaged and sold for fresh salads. No cooking means the bacteria can easily get into our bodies and sicken us. Bon appetit!