From Melamine to Mercury

January 29, 2009

After two years of hearing about melamine in pet food and baby formula, watchful consumers have learned that the industrial inputs into our food supply are depressingly unregulated. With so much of the world’s food dependent on bulk amounts of gluten and milk powder, the opportunity for fraud (as in spiking milk powder with melamine to enhance the appearance of protein) or just cutting economic corners (and thus compromising safety) are endless. It is into this latter category that the recent bad news about mercury falls.

Here is the essence of what scientists writing in the January 26 issue of Environmental Health have reported: high fructose corn syrup produced with mercury grade caustic soda led to mercury contamination in over 50 percent of the common commercial foods they tested. Mercury is toxic. It should never be in our food. The scientists wrote, 

We sent several dozen products to a commercial laboratory, using the latest in mercury detection technology. And guess what? We found mercury. In fact, we detected mercury in nearly one in three of the 55 HFCS-containing food products we tested. They include some of the most recognizable brands on supermarket shelves: Quaker, Hunt’s, Manwich, Hershey’s, Smucker’s, Kraft, Nutri-Grain and Yoplait.

Before we rush to judgment and condemn Quaker Oats, however, do keep in mind that the HFCS was never labeled “mercury grade.” There was no way for Manwich or Hunt’s or Hershey’s to know that HFCS manufactures used caustic soda made in chlorine plants equipped with mercury cells, which is evidently the source of the contamination.  Critics of our globalized and industrialized food system are rightly calling for a wider embrace of alternative food systems. But that is not enough.  

Our food systems are vast. Supply chains are seemingly eternal. And they are not going away–no matter how loudly we beat the drum for small-scale agriculture, they are not going away. The vast majority of consumers will always —always–buy industrialized food. Fortunately, mercury contamination, like melamine contamination, is not necessarily a reflection of a super-sized food system. It is, though, necessarily a sign of a super-sized political failure.  Recall how the FDA handled the melamine scandal [] and you’ll not be surprised to hear that it’s dragging it bureaucratic feet on the mercury news. Again, the scientists: 

Through this public scientist’s initiative, the FDA learned that commercial HFCS was contaminated with mercury. The agency has apparently done nothing to inform consumers of this fact, however, or to help change industry practice.

While I generally support the move toward alternative systems, I am fearful of at least two things. One, I fear that our unfounded assumption that smaller is safer will prevent us from subjecting alternative agriculture to stringent safety and environmental regulations.  Two, and more importantly, I fear that the many benefits of alternative agriculture will obscure the fact that conventional food production can, with political reform, be reliably safe. (Look at what has happened to cars since Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965). After all, several years ago, a young and ambitious Senator introduced legislation to force chlorine plants to upgrade their old mercury cells.  The legislation went nowhere, but the Senator did. He’s now our President.

Link to the study:

The standard line has always been that free range pigs are healthier pigs than conventionally raised pigs. They’re freer, happier, and thus, with stress levels reduced, healthier. See this piece, for example, published by the Soil Association:  It all seems reasonable enough, if conspicuously silent on the ultimate fate of these frolicking beasts. 

A wealth of recent studies, however, have amassed impressive, if disturbing, empirical evidence that free range pigs are in fact much more likely to carry salmonella and several other potentially deadly bacteria, including trichenella (which has been all but eliminated from conventional pork). The reasons for the greater rates of disease in outdoor pigs is not altogether clear. Interaction with wildlife (rats, birds, feral cats) might be a factor, as might the wide dispersal of manure. The fact that scientists are unsure of the reasons behind this phenomenon means more studies will surely be forthcoming. 

I highlight these studies below not to suggest that we should all run out and eat conventionally raised pork. To the contrary, I merely want to reiterate that when it comes to eating meat it is very difficult to settle on options that are both healthy and environmentally beneficial. Frankly, I think we’d all be better off if we gave the stuff up.

These studies are rather dense, but I suggest plowing through them.  The message could not be more clear: free range pigs are more dangerous to eat.  Why? Well, that’s the big question in this emerging debate.

Here’s an excerpt from the abstract of one of the earlier studies, published in 2004 in a Danish academic journal:

“[S]eroprevalence data have indicated a higher incidence of Salmonella in outdoor than in indoor production systems. This higher incidence may be due to an increased exposure of the animals to the surrounding environment, including contact with wildlife. In a study on the transmission of Salmonella to outdoor pigs an unexpected high diversity of Salmonella serotypes that are not normally isolated from pigs . . .was detected in faecal and in soil and water samples. . . The unidentified source of the Salmonella serotypes isolated implies inadequate control possibilities and may therefore pose a problem to outdoor pig production in terms of food safety.”

Last month California Liquid Fertilizer, producer of about a third of California’s “organic” fertilizer, was busted for adding synthetic ammonium sulfate to its product–a chemical explicitly not allowed in organic agriculture. It had been adding the substance for seven years. 

Now there is this piece from the Sac Bee, documenting yet another–even broader–violation of organic standards by a major organic fertilizer producer. It’s an unfortunate hint that organic agriculture’s lack of regulation, as well as its eager push to scale up, may be sowing the seeds of a troubled future. 

By Don Schrack

(Jan. 26, 9:30 a.m.) Another California-based organic liquid fertilizer supplier may be in trouble with federal and state agriculture officials. 

Federal agents searched Port Organic Products Ltd., Buttonwillow, Calif., on Jan. 22, according to an article by the Sacramento Bee. Industry sources, the Bee reported, estimate the company produced up to half of the liquid fertilizer used on the state’s organic farms in recent years.

The GreenPeople Web site and others indicate family owned Port Organic Products is a leading producer of fish-based liquid organic fertilizers. The only company product certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute, Eugene, Ore., according to the institute’s Web site, is Marizyme 4-2-2 Fishilizer. It is identified as a fertilizer containing a variety of ingredients including ground fish. 

The source of the nitrogen in Marizyme 4-2-2 may be the reason for the federal action. TheBee reported it had obtained documents indicating California Department of Food and Agriculture officials suspected in fall 2007 that Port Organic was using synthetic nitrogen. Kern County records reveal the company has in the past three years purchased substantial amounts of aqua ammonia, a source of synthetic nitrogen.

The day after the search at Port Organics, California Certified Organic Farmers, Santa Cruz, an organic certifier, directed organic growers to stop using the company’s products. 

The investigation at Port Organics is the second one reported in recent weeks. In late December, the Bee reported that the agriculture department two years ago ordered California Liquid Fertilizer, Gonzales, to halt distribution of its products after a more than a yearlong investigation. 

When details of the California Liquid Fertilizer order were reported, Miguel Guerrero, marketing director of the Organics Materials Review Institute, told The Packer that the institute was actively pursuing actions against other California firms. 

According to its Web site, California Certified Organic Farmers is working directly with manufacturers and compliance and inspection agencies to ensure that organic regulations are being followed.

Genetically modified foods–called Frankenfoods by detractors–strike me as a problematic, but potentially invaluable tool (one tool out of many) that we’ll have to exploit in order to feed a world growing at a dangerously rapid rate. More often than not, however, discussions of GMO’s are cast in the most radical polarizations. To get a better understanding of why we need a rational and balanced debate about the role GMOs might play in the future of sustainable food, see the following piece. It’s refreshing  and, in a way, radical because it avoids hyperbole.