by Jan Baughman
"What is food to one, is to others bitter poison."
—Lucretius, De Rerum Natura
(Swans - March 27, 2006) Sometime in the 1990s, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) learned of the formation of benzene in soft drinks that contain sodium benzoate as a preservative and Vitamin C for our health. Unfortunately, benzene is a carcinogen, increasing the risk of leukemia and other cancers, and when the soft drink companies were exposed, they told the FDA they'd "get the word out," but apparently never got around to it, or perhaps used subliminal advertising to do so. Now new tests show benzene levels in heretofore unnamed soft drinks of two-and-a-half and five times the World Health Organization limit for drinking water, and FDA has confirmed this in their own tests. "People shouldn't overreact," said Kevin Keane, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association. "It's a very small number of products and not major brands," so we can just continue to play Russian roulette with our drink choices until the offending brands are revealed and possibly reformulated...
Meantime, the diet soft drink drinkers among us have another compound to worry about: aspartame, an artificial sweetener approved by the FDA in 1981, which is in Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, etc., many foods, and is sold as NutraSweet and Equal. A recent study in rats showed high rates of cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma at the daily equivalent of 80-100 ounces of soda for a 150-pound person (how that dose relates to all the obese children being urged to switch to diet drinks was not extrapolated.) Aspartame was developed by G. D. Searle, whose safety research in the 1970s and '80s was questioned for accuracy and credibility by the FDA, to the extent that a grand jury investigation was recommended. And, my goodness gracious, who was CEO of Searle from 1977 to 1985, but our very own Donald Rumsfeld! The local US attorney never convened that grand jury and, in fact, went to work for the law firm representing Searle, before eventually joining the George H.W. Bush administration as secretary of transportation and then his chief of staff. In 1981, the newly-appointed FDA commissioner supported approval of aspartame despite an independent panel's conclusion that it caused an increase in brain tumors in rats, and despite their recommendation for more studies. After less than a year with the agency, said commissioner went to work for the PR firm representing...Searle. At present, the FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety doesn't "see any concerns at this stage."
Now, before deciding to kick the Diet Coke habit and pour a nice, clean glass of tap water, consider this: The National Research Council has just reported that the fluoride added to drinking water to protect us from tooth decay and arthritic bone disease is at too high of a level, and their evidence links fluoride to...tooth damage, bone fracture, and joint pain. They cite increasing evidence that fluoride exposure may also disrupt the nervous and endocrine systems, recommending research on its relationship to cancer, arthritis, dementia, diabetes, and thyroid function.
If the water risk has your head spinning, imagine how the poor fish feel! Touted as a heart-healthy food source, they have become consumers on the food chain of mercury emissions from industrial pollution, with the larger predator fish -- shark, marlin, swordfish, and tuna -- containing the highest levels. The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued in 2004 an advisory for pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children regarding fish consumption. Shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish are off the menu. Six ounces of solid white albacore tuna is the limit per week, but 12 ounces of chunk light tuna is acceptable, so they say. But why is chunk light tuna safer? "In order to keep the market share at a reasonable level, we felt like we had to keep light tuna in the low-mercury group," said FDA official Clark Carrington, without explaining why the FDA was involved with regulating food industry profits. There are no recommended levels for the non-pregnant, non-nursing adults among us because, as HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt (who, by the way, is the former secretary of the EPA so he knows a lot about both pollution and health) explains: "Mercury is bad and fish is good. We needed to choose the right words that would give people a sense of knowledge without creating unwarranted fear."
Could it be that with the US government budget being eaten alive by the Freedom and Democracy Crusades, the Department of Health and Human Services is subsidized by the tuna industry? In preparing for a possible flu pandemic, Mr. Leavitt had this advice to help prepare Americans for quarantine: "When you go to the store and buy three cans of tuna fish, buy a fourth and put it under the bed... When you do that for a period of four to six months, you are going to have a couple of weeks of food, and that's what we're talking about." While our good Mr. Rumsfeld profits from Tamiflu stockpiling, executives in the tuna industry are doing the same. The questions of why we should store our tuna under the bed and why we would want to trade influenza exposure for mercury poisoning were not addressed...
How will the government respond to protect its citizens in the face of the myriad risks from the food supply? On March 9, 2006, the House of Representatives approved a bill (H.R. 4167, The National Uniformity for Food Act of 2005) that would erase state laws on safety labeling of food that are more stringent than federal standards...unless the FDA approves the labeling. Gone, for example, would be California's requirement for labeling of foods that contain substances known to cause cancer or birth defects. Lobbyists for the bill, by the way, included George W. Bush's Chief of Staff Andrew Card's brother Brad, representing the Food Products Association. Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but the same week that the House passed H.R. 4167, Wal-Mart announced its plans to mass-market organic foods, and to "knock out the myth that [organic food is] just for the rich."
So don't overreact; don't be too concerned; have no fear... Once again, we'll be able drink our benzene and eat our mercury in ignorant bliss; shop organically at Wal-Mart and feel good about it. But with the EPA and the FDA having succumbed to setting policy based on special interests instead of science and public interest, what we don't know is likely to hurt us.
Cheers, and bon appétit!
Healthy food starts with your bi-weeklyEat as much as you can but, please, help pay the