News bites, August 2002

Sound Consumer August 2002

Farmed salmon more polluted

Two separate studies are showing that farmed salmon contain a much higher level of pollutants than wild fish. The results from a study in Canada and another in England were consistent and reportedly could pose a health risk to humans. The studies show 10 times the level of contaminants (most notably PCBs, organochlorine pesticides, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers) in the fish raised in ocean net pens. Scientists traced the contamination to the feed, which comes from baitfish trawled from the world’s oceans by industrial fleets. Concentrating the baitfish into fishmeal pellets apparently concentrates toxins.
(Natural Food Merchandiser)

Organic school lunches

child illustration

In California, the Palo Alto Unified School District will start offering organic lunches this fall, joining a few other districts in the nation. The move reflects a nationwide push toward more healthful meals for students. California and Texas lead the effort with new laws to phase out junk food in schools. In California, proponents cite statistics indicating more than a quarter of the state’s children, age nine to 17, are overweight. The Oakland school district this year banned candy, soda and other junk food from its campuses. Last year, Berkeley schools went entirely organic.

GMOs found in human gut


British researchers have demonstrated for the first time that genetically modified (GM) DNA from food crops is finding its way into human gut bacteria, raising potentially serious health questions. Many genetically modified crops use antibiotic-resistant marker genes to track where transgenic material lands in a host plant, or whether it transfers at all. Some experts in molecular genetics say that if genetic material from these marker genes can find their way into the human stomach, then people’s resistance to widely used antibiotics could be compromised. The transgenes reportedly degrade in the human colon, but the research is important because the industry claimed that gene transfer from foods to humans is extremely unlikely. The research, commissioned by the British food standards agency, is the first known trial of GM foods on human volunteers.

GMO trade rules

The European Union has ratified a treaty setting rules on trade in genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The 15 nation treaty would require export nations, such as the United States, to get explicit permission from importer countries before shipping them GMOs such as seeds or fish that are meant for release into the environment. The pact is known as the “Cartagena biosafety” pact and is expected to come into force next year. The United States has refused to be a party to it.

Animal welfare

The supermarket and fast-food industries have unveiled their first comprehensive guidelines for the humane treatment of farm animals. The Food Marketing Institute (FMI), which represents most of the nation’s supermarket owners, and the National Council of Chain Restaurants spent nearly two years developing the guidelines. They recommend that farmers should curtail the practice of housing hens in small cages, debeaking, and withholding food and water to induce molting, which increases egg production. They also recommend pregnant pigs should not be kept in pens too narrow to turn around or lie down, and that slaughterhouses must ensure animals are unconscious before being butchered. The guidelines are voluntary.

More at stake than steak

Two bills before Congress would phase out the routine addition of antibiotics to animal feed because of growing antibiotic resistance. The Union of Concerned Scientists says as much as 70 percent of the antibiotics produced in the U.S. today are put in animal feed to prevent illness and promote growth. Each year, drugs such as penicillin, erythromycin, and tetracycline are less effective against strains of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, is withdrawing approval for a drug used by the poultry industry because of growing resistance to a food-borne bacteria that infects humans. Bayer refused to remove the drug voluntarily from the poultry market.

Yak it up

Fifty miles north of Spokane, in Valley, Washington, a rancher is raising yaks now after low beef prices led him to reconsider his options. Jack Simmons says yaks require only a third as much feed as cattle and their meat tastes similar to beef, but is 95 percent fat-free and low in cholesterol. Yaks are hardy and disease-resistant, and the downy fur beneath a yak’s coarse, outer coat can be spun into a soft yarn that sells for as much as $16 per ounce.

Antibiotic resistance from genetic engineering

nuclear corn illustration

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is on the brink of allowing a new genetically engineered corn product with an antibiotic-resistant marker (ARM) gene to come to market. The British Medical Association, meanwhile, continues to call for a ban on the use of ARM genes in food, saying the practice is one of the major public health threats of the 21st century.

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