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 [http://www.slate.com/id/2207552/] 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: http://www.ehjournal.net/content/8/1/2

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