News Briefs – July 2007

A ‘GROWING’ RISK FROM CHINA – AND WAL-MART?

China is rapidly becoming the world’s greatest exporter of vegetables, other foods, medicines, food additives, pet foods and other consumables. And in view of China’s recent history of shoddy quality control (contaminated products, counterfeit ingredients, foods laced with synthetic and long-banned pesticides, toxic pet food and risky animal medications), this huge importing trend may pose a serious health risk.

In the first three months of 2007, US imports of fresh vegetables from China grew by 66%, juice imports by 98% and fresh fruit imports by an astonishing 279%. China now produces half of all vegetables grown on the planet. A similar trend has been occurring, quietly, in the markets for fruits and other foods. Even medicine often originates in China, which makes 70% of all penicillin, 50% of all aspirin, a third of all acetaminophen and most of the world’s enzymes, analgesics, amino acids and antibiotics. China is rapidly dominating the market for some herbs as well. For example, in 2000, China accounted for less than 1% of all North American fresh garlic imports; in 2005, China made up 73% of the same market.

As large manufacturers (and large retailers such as Wal-Mart) buy more food and medicines from the country, China is poised to become the same export juggernaut for fresh foods, processed foods and medicines that it already had become for manufactured goods. But is this a health risk? Yes. Because China’s safety record for food imports is frightening.

In April alone, 107 food imports from China were detained by the FDA at US ports. You no doubt heard about the scare surrounding North American pet food products containing Chinese ingredients that were laced with toxic melamine. Adulterated Chinese wheat gluten led to the deaths of thousands of pets in North America. Other export disasters from China within the last few months alone include: imported livestock quarantined for disease and banned contaminants; catfish fillets tainted with bacteria and heavy metals; dried apples preserved with a cancer-causing chemical; cuttlefish soaked in calligraphic ink to improve colour; eels fed oral contraceptives to make them grow longer and slimmer; and mushrooms contaminated with illegal pesticides. Aside from exports, in China itself, fake baby formula was sold to the public and as a result, a number of babies died.

Fish imported from China (North America’s leading source of imported fish, with exports up 34% in the past year) are often raised in sewage-infested fish farms in Chinese lakes and rivers, necessitating the pumping in of massive levels of antibiotics, pesticides and fungicides. Many of these chemicals are banned in Canada. Only about 0.6 of 1% of seafood imports are inspected.

Warnings recently went out in the US and Canada, about imported toothpaste, containing potentially toxic antifreeze. Many other toiletry items made cheaply in China, sometimes imported from a third country, have been found to contain dangerous chemicals. Fake medicines to treat impotency and help with weight loss are legion among China’s exports. African nations have complained of counterfeit Chinese medicines hitting their pharmacy shelves. Shady pharmaceutical firms have exported bogus anti-malaria medication to Southeast Asia, where the illness is prevalent, allowing sick people to grow sicker. There were at least 51 deaths in Panama attributed to medicine originating in China that was tainted with diethylene glycol (the same chemical found in Canada in fake “Colgate” toothpaste made in China). “We really believe they are criminals,” said Henk Bekedam, PhD, chief of the World Health Organization office in China, referring to producers of fake medicines.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rejected 257 Chinese food shipments in May of this year, with at least 137 labelled “filthy,” after testing positive for salmonella or for containing banned ingredients. The FDA seized more than 1,000 shipments of tainted cosmetics, food additives and counterfeit medicine from China last month. And yet, less than 1% of Chinese imports are inspected – how many of these seizures would there be if the inspection rate were higher?

Questionable Chinese imports can be found anywhere, from small dollar stores to major grocery chains. But can you guess where you’ll find the greatest number and volume of Chinese products? At China’s eighth-largest trading partner: Wal-Mart. The giant is also the largest food retailer in North America.

How does China find the manpower to process, pack and ship such vast quantities of food and other products? According to National Geographic magazine, over 140 million rural Chinese already have left their homes for city jobs; another 45 million are expected to join them within five years. Often entire workers’ cities are built within months. (One entire factory was relocated in a single day.) Add in the communist regime’s poverty wages and you have a recipe for a cheap-export juggernaut.

What can you do? Not much because current laws do not require these products to be labelled with their country of origin. Of course, greater Canadian government inspection of foods, medicines, additives and other foodstuffs imported from China might be instituted eventually; but only about 1% of Chinese imports are inspected at present. The Chinese government may even recognize the greater long-term economic benefit of exporting products that are not merely far cheaper but also of consistent quality and safety; but corruption in China is rampant.

So tighter inspection and greater quality control may depend, in part, on the probing and skeptical questions we start asking our food and toiletry suppliers—and our politicians.

Readers who would like to learn more about the growing risk of Chinese imports should read “China’s Growing Exports: Food and Fear,” in the May 23, 2007 issue of Business Week magazine, which is available online at: www.businessweek.com/print/bwdaily/dnflash/content/may2007/db20070523_447291.htm

Readers interested in the massive internal migration that feeds China’s export machine should read “China’s Instant Cities,” in the June, 2007 edition of National Geographic magazine. It is currently available at: https://www7.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0706/feature4/index.html.

A report by World Net Daily on how fish imported from China are raised in raw sewage and a soup of dangerous drugs and chemicals is available at: https://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=56004

SOY MILK vs. SOY FORMULA – FATAL DISTINCTION

About 25% of the public feeds soy formula to their babies but apparently, some people cannot tell the difference between soy formula and soy milk. Soy milk should not be fed to babies and can be fatal. To provide the nourishment of mother’s milk, soy formula is required by law to contain various other ingredients in substantial amounts: vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids. These added and crucial nutrients are not found in regular soy milk.

According to a news release distributed by book author Kaayla Daniel, an Atlanta-based vegan couple has been convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment after the death of their six-week-old baby. The baby was only 3-1/2 pounds when it died in April, 2004 after a month and a half on a regimen of soy milk, apple juice and a very small amount of breast milk. Tragically, the parents believed they were providing better quality milk by avoiding commercial infant preparations. There was one previous conviction for murder and another for manslaughter, both for the same reason: feeding soy milk to babies. Although most responsible parents would seek medical attention for any baby weighing less than four pounds at age six weeks, it is crucial to recognize that soy milk is not a substitute for soy formula and is inadequate to keep babies alive. Most soy milk brands (but not all) carry this warning in small print.

38 NEW NON-ORGANICS TO GET ‘ORGANIC’ LABEL IN U.S.

A new proposal will add 38 ingredients to the current list of non-organic substances permitted for use in organic food products. The proposal is under review by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), but about 90% of Canada’s organic foods are imported from the U.S. Also, the non-organic ingredients can be found now in both Canadian and US organic foods because many organic producers have long believed they can legally substitute non-organic ingredients whenever they cannot locate organic versions. A new regulation came in to effect June 9 that clarifies that only ingredients on the National List can be used – and the list is being expanded so as not to disrupt current manufacturing practices.

So what conventional ingredients will soon be permitted in American organic foods? Among others, the list includes non-organic versions of fish oil, beta-carotene, colouring, whey protein, seaweed, cornstarch, kelp, grape juice, guar and the casings of processed animal intestines.

SPECIAL DINNER PLATE PROMOTES WEIGHT LOSS

Overweight people with diabetes have as much success dropping pounds using a colourful, specially-designed dinner plate, which measures food portions, as they do on many weight-loss drugs, Canadian researchers said on July 25.

Half the subjects used the so-called Diet Plate, a British-made tool that allows people to measure out portions of carbohydrates, proteins, sauces and fruits and vegetables. Also, diabetics using the plate may be able to reduce their insulin intake eventually, said endocrinologist Sue Pedersen, PhD, of the University of Calgary Faculty of Medicine, who led the six-month study.

Of those who used the plate for six months, 17 per cent lost five per cent or more of their weight; in the group that didn’t use the plate, fewer than five per cent lost a clinically important amount. Over 25 per cent of plate users reduced their diabetic medication; only 11 per cent in the other group could reduce their medication and 34 per cent had to increase their medication.

“People using the plate were over three times more likely to lose a clinically significant amount of weight than non-plate users,” Pedersen said. “And that weight loss is similar to the weight loss seen in studies of weight-loss drugs, but without the potential for side-effects.”

Findings of the team, which studied 130 people with type 2 diabetes, were published in the June 2007 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. The manufacturer donated the plates but did not fund the study. More information and ordering instructions can be found at: https://www.thedietplate.us/

ECHINACEA MAY PREVENT COLDS, AFTER ALL

Although many studies have been unable to confirm the idea that echinacea can help prevent colds or even shorten their duration, a new study suggests that the herb may work after all.

Researchers from the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy combined the results of 14 different studies on echinacea’s anti-cold properties. They found it decreased the odds of developing a cold by 58 per cent and the duration of colds by a day-and-a-half. The study team suggested that treatment with echinacea may be appropriate only for those with weakened immune systems. It has been suggested that continuous treatment with echinacea is not recommended and that the benefits may be effective for only one or two weeks; after that time, people should stop using it to give the immune system a break. The study was published in the June 2007 issue of the journal, The Lancet Infectious Diseases.

NEWS NOTES:

– Can pop damage DNA? Research from a British university suggests that sodium benzoate, a preservative found in some soft drinks, has the ability to switch off vital parts of DNA, which could eventually lead to diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver and Parkinson’s. The report appeared in the UK paper The Independent on May 27 but should be viewed skeptically at this point because the tests were only performed on yeast, not animals or humans.

– Folic acid reduces stroke risk: Supplementing foods like bread with folic acid could cut the risks of a stroke by a fifth, a new UK study suggests. Experts warned the benefits must be balanced against the risks because, for instance, folic acid supplements can mask the symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency in older people. Recommendations have previously been made to supplement foods with folic acid to help pregnant women prevent birth defects. The study ran in the June 1, 2007 issue of The Lancet.

– Food miles cancel out eco-benefits? A June 2007 study from the University of Alberta has concluded that the environmental impact of food miles racked up by organic produce cancels out the environmental benefits of growing it. Organic foods generally are shipped greater distances, says the study. For instance, organic mangoes often originate in Ecuador and Peru while conventional mangoes come from Mexico; organic peppers generally come from Mexico while non-organic peppers generally come from Canada. However, benefit to the environment is only one of several reasons for buying organic cited in surveys by regular customers. Also, locally grown (low mileage) organic can be found in season.

– Herbal sleep product warning: Health Canada is advising consumers not to use the herbal sleep aids sold as Optimum Health Care SleePlus TCM or BYL SleePlus, because the products contain the undeclared drug clonazepam, which can be habit-forming when used for as little as a few months. Health Canada issued four advisories on similar herbal products since August 2006. These items were never approved for sale in Canada. Those that are approved will always carry an eight-digit Drug Identification Number (DIN), a Natural Product Number (NPN) or a Homeopathic Medicine Number (DIN-HM) on the label. For more information, contact Health Canada at (613) 957-2991, or toll free at 1-866-225-0709.

– Shifting omega oils better for prostate: Increasing omega-3 fatty acid levels and decreasing omega-6 intake could reduce the risk of prostate cancer risk in individuals with a genetic predisposition to cancer, if results from an animal study can be translated to humans. Confirming previous studies, the new research was published in the July, 2007 issue of Journal of Clinical Investigation. (Coincidentally, an unrelated study in the July, 2007 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found omega-3 during pregnancy can hike a baby’s IQ.)

– Aspartame risk revisited: A new study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found statistically significant increases in lymphomas and leukemia in rats that were fed as little as 20 milligrams of the sweetener aspartame per kilogram of body weight—an amount that’s in the ballpark of what some people consume. Previously, the US FDA ruled that aspartame is safe based on a variety of studies. The new study is complicated—or possibly improved—by the fact that, unlike other research, the sweetener was given to the rats before birth.

Michael Downey is a columnist with Vitality Magazine, contributing his News Briefs column every month.

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