What’s for Dinner? Trans Fats, Dyes, Salmonella

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Pam Linn

In its annual report, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) alerts its membership to the reckless waste of antibiotics. And while many of us have long recognized the problem, we chafe at the glacial pace of change. 

It’s been about 15 years since Kaiser Permanente began re-educating its doctors to understand that the over-prescribing of antibiotics to treat viral infections, particularly in children, was furthering the proliferation of antibiotic resistance. Notices were hung on the walls of offices alerting patients and parents not to pressure doctors to give antibiotics to every kid with an earache. Antiviral drugs and some natural remedies have proven to be more effective treatments for colds and flu. Still, change is hard. 

Nowhere is that truer than when industry pressures government agencies to ignore common practices that produce the same result. The FDA and USDA have known for years that livestock producers add antibiotics to animal feed to promote growth. But every time they try to pass regulations against such practices, industry groups pressure them to weaken their recommendations to “voluntary” compliance. I guess we all know how well that works. 

The CSPI opens its report with this: Three times more antibiotics are sold for use in animal farming than are used to treat humans in the U.S. The consequence is that many strains of bacteria such as Salmonella have become resistant to the most important antibiotics used to treat human illness, making diseases harder to cure and lifesaving surgeries more dangerous. 

The practice puts everyone at risk, not just those who abuse antibiotics. Outbreaks of resistant Salmonella found in chicken, ground beef, milk and cheese have sickened tens of thousands of people in recent decades. What used to be called food poisoning is becoming prevalent and increasingly difficult to treat. 

Because the USDA has refused to act, insisting it doesn’t have authority to make necessary changes to protect consumers, the CSPI has worked with Congress to introduce the Pathogen Reduction and Testing Reform Act, which may be enacted this year, but only if pressure is put on industry to comply. 

The other problem is there are no new antibiotics in the pipeline. For this failing, we can blame pharmaceutical companies that don’t see enough profit in drugs that may be used only to treat disease. Their real profit comes from drugs that patients take daily for the rest of their lives to reduce risk from chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and allergies. 

On the bright side, there is a law already on the books called the Food Safety Modernization Act that has encouraged U.S. attorneys to pursue companies that violate safety standards with criminal charges. Until recently, food producers had to voluntarily recall contaminated foods and those responsible for hiding known contamination from consumers seemed immune to prosecution. 

CSPI also is working to remove dangerous additives from processed foods. These include sugar substitutes and dyes that are lurking where they are least expected. We expect them in cold cereals and sodas, but popcorn, English muffins and frozen dinners? Not so much. 

The CSPI publishes a monthly newsletter, Nutrition Action Healthletter, which regularly compares brand name products for safety and additional consumer-friendly guides on suspect additives. 

Those of us who regularly inspect food labels have known for some time that nutrition labels don’t tell the whole story. Take trans fats (if you must), which companies are allowed to list as 0 grams when they contain .5 grams or less. This was a giant cave by the government to pressure from industry groups to ignore one of the most damaging ingredients on the planet that has no nutritional value whatsoever. The chemical, partially hydrogenated oils, is listed under ingredients while the label insists the product contains no trans fats. The pressure is on for the FDA to ban trans fats outright in an effort to curb obesity, diabetes and heart problems. 

The CSPI report shows the old labels alongside a suggested new one that is easier to read with key ingredients (added sugars, saturated fat) printed in red and calorie content at the top in larger bold type. 

Among the additives discussed in the CSPI report are sodium and caffeine, both of which have been noted by scientists as harmful to health. Sensitivity to caffeine increases with age and many people who once drank three cups of coffee per day find the amount of caffeine in one espresso drink is enough to make their heart rate triple. One might expect that reaction from coffee or energy drinks, but perhaps not from chocolate chips. Current regulation doesn’t require caffeine content to be printed on labels. In fact, it can be devilishly hard to learn if it’s contained in the product and, if so, how much. 

For a copy of the report or to subscribe to Nutrition Action, go to www.cspinet.org. 

Linn is a former editor of The Malibu Times.