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HOW SAFE IS OUR FOOD SUPPLY? (PART II)- PROBLEMS WITH LABELING AND ADDITIVES

Sep 1, 2002 Through the years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has attempted to make sure that the food products made available to the American public are safe for consumption. For most, the likelihood of suffering a food or drug related illness is remote. Yet, for those with specific food allergies or unique health conditions, proper labeling on products is imperative in order to avoid potentially dangerous situations. The addition of supplements and additives to food products poses another risk to consumers if it is discovered that the substance in question is harmful. It is therefore extremely important that consumers are made aware of specific dangers associated with food and food products, through accurate labeling, published warnings and their own investigation.

Faulty or Misleading Labels

In a recent investigation/inspection of dozens of food companies, the FDA found that despite strict labeling laws, as many as 25% of food manufacturers failed to list common ingredients that can cause potentially fatal allergic reactions. Since these ingredients may only be found in minute traces, manufacturers often omit them from labels. The FDA examined 85 companies, which were most likely to use "common allergy triggers", such as cookie makers, candy companies and ice cream manufacturers. In may cases, allergy provoking ingredients were found on machinery which is used to make an array of products in a given company and is not always cleaned after every use. Many of these allergens were not deliberately added to a particular product but wound up in them anyway because bakers, for example, routinely used the same utensils and other baking equipment to stir separate mixes. Pan liners, parchment paper and conveyor belts are cleaned quite infrequently - one company even admitted to only cleaning the conveyor belt once every year. One fourth of the companies made products with raw ingredients, such as nuts, but failed to report so on the labels describing the food. In fact, only half the manufacturers actually checked their products to make sure the labels accurately reflected all included ingredients.

Even when allergens are listed, they are sometimes referred to by their scientific names instead of the more commonly known English terms. For example, milk may be listed as "casein", a term with which most Americans are unfamiliar with thus posing yet another risk for potential consumers.

There are about seven million Americans who suffer from food allergies. Every year 30,000 people are rushed to hospital emergency rooms for allergic reactions ranging from mild to fatal. As many as 200 of them die. It is the consumer's responsibility to check labels, especially if they know they have specific food allergies. Yet, if the labels do not accurately list all the ingredients present in a given product, it can become a serious health hazard to consumers. Current FDA regulations require companies to list everything that goes into their products, but allow trace amounts of "natural" ingredients to be omitted from the labels. Recently, there has been a petition for a new rule which would require manufacturers to warn consumers that their product might contain allergens, even if only in the smallest traces.

Manufacturers sometimes take advantage of government regulations to mislead the public into thinking a product is something that it is not. For example, some "fat free" cooking sprays are actually pure fat. This is because government regulations only require a product to list "fat" on their nutrition label if the "per serving" amount is at or above a specified level. By keeping the serving size very small, a manufacturer need not include fat on its "nutritional facts" label while it is clearly on the of the main ingredients. One such "fat free" spray lists canola oil as its main ingredient, yet, because the servicing size is rather unrealistic "1/3 second spray", fat content per serving is listed as zero. Not only is it virtually impossible to spray anything from any aerosol can for just 1/3 of a second, but also, how can such a minute spray coat the surface of any size frying pan, pot or baking tin? So, in the end, the product may be "low" in fat but it cannot possible be fat free.

Labels can also be misleading when they proclaim a product to be "sugar free", "cholesterol free", "lite", or "non fat". Such products may be quite problematic for consumers with health problems such as diabetes, obesity or high cholesterol. For example, "sugar free" products are often loaded with fat and calories. They may also contain sugar in different forms such as fructose and have high carbohydrate content. "Non fat" or "fat free" foods are sometimes extremely fattening because they are filled with sugar and other carbohydrates. "Lite" can mean just about anything and usually cannot be trusted as accurate.

Herbal Additives

Herb-infused drinks are the fastest growing segment of the beverage business. For the past few years, companies such as PepsiCo, Cadbury Schweppes and Odwalla have been marketing products such as SoBe, Snapple and Fresh Samantha. These drinks contain herbal supplements such as ginkgo biloba, Siberian ginseng and Echinacea. While these supplements are not necessarily seen as harmful to the consumers, the FDA has warned companies that adding these supplements to their products could be illegal because the "novel ingredients" might not be generally recognized as safe. Ginkgo may exacerbate bleeding or even cause hemorrhaging when taken with certain medications, specifically anti-coagulants. Consumers should always check product labels and be on the lookout for developing information on these herbal beverages.

Carrageenan (Food Additives)

Last year, it was discovered that the food supplement known as carrageenan caused cancer in laboratory animals. In a new report, the FDA has stated that is use in human foods should be reconsidered. Carrageenan, a seaweed extract, can be found in processed meats and milk products such as ice cream, whipped cream, pudding and yogurt. While there have been no reports of illness in humans, "people need to be informed about the potential risks that are associated with eating carrageenan based on animal studies," says Dr. Joanne K. Tobacman of the University of Iowa Health Care.

Comfrey Dietary Supplements

Comfrey is an herbal dietary supplement that has been sold as a cure for illnesses such as asthma, tuberculosis and herpes. It has also been sold as a topical medicine for bruises, wounds, muscle aches, sprains and broken bones. Recently, however, the FDA has discovered that comfrey contains toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can potentially cause liver damage and may play a role as a cancer-causing agent. It is dangerous to consumers if taken internally or used on broken skin. There have been no reported deaths but consumers are advised to stop using products containing any of the three types of comfrey - common comfrey, prickley comfrey and Russian comfrey.

Folate and Iron

It has been proven that a daily recommended dosage of folate and iron is an integral part of a balanced diet. But, over time, too much iron and folate on a daily basis can actually become harmful. According to FDA officials, the risks associated with too much iron intake mostly concern men. A higher iron status in males may be connected to an increased risk for cancer and heart disease. This information has risen out of a study of fortified cereals conducted recently by the FDA. Fortified cereals, popular primarily amongst adults, may contain a significant amount of iron and folate, sometimes even 120% more than listed on the label. In addition to these already elevated folate levels, a study showed that most people actually eat more than two times the listed serving thereby placing them at even higher risk. The recommended amount for daily consumption is 18 mg of iron and 400 micrograms of folic acid. Consumers, especially males, should not exceed the recommended amount.

Vitamin C Dangers

In a recent study it was found that vitamin C pills might in fact help produce toxins that can damage DNA, a step towards forming cancer cells. "The findings do not mean that vitamin C causes cancer," says Ian A. Blair, lead author of the study. "Vitamin C can do some good things, but it can do some bad things as well. If you really wanted to be cautious you just wouldn't use the supplementation (vitamin pills)." This new discovery may explain why studies conducted to show that vitamin C can protect against cancer have failed.

Vitamin C supplementation does not only include pills. Juices, cereals, and candies are also forms of the nutrient. In its natural form, however, vitamin C can be a healthy addition to your daily diet. The Institute of Medicine recommends that women need 75 milligrams of vitamin C daily and 90 milligrams for men. These levels can be achieved optimally by a balanced diet. In light of this new study, researchers are advising consumers to avoid supplementation whenever possible.

Baby Formula

In rare instances, powdered infant formulas have been found to cause serious infections in infants. It is not always a sterile product, and, if stored at room temperature, it may become susceptible to bacteria growth.

Mead Johnson Nutritionals is recalling a batch of specialty formulas intended for babies with rare digestive diseases after an infant died of a rare infection when given the formula. The formula is called Portagen and is used mostly by hospitals. In certain circumstances, however, families are instructed to continue using it at home. (In light of this information, hospitals have made the switch from powdered formulas to ready-to-feed formulas). Portagen is for infants, toddlers, and, in some cases, even adults with rare digestive diseases that prevent them from absorbing fats. Consumers with questions should call (888) 587-7275.

In addition to this recall, Mead Johnson Nutritionals has asked physicians to stop distributing sample packs of its LactoFree and Enfamil infant formulas because the packages fail to list ingredients. Infants allergic to milk protein are at risk of serious allergic reaction if they are given the formula. So far, there have been no reported incidents. Consumers with questions should call (888) 222-9223.

As with many things, it what you don't know about the food you're eating that can hurt you (or worse). For this reason, we strongly urge our subscribers to read all labels carefully, listen to and read news reports concerning food products, and always err on the side of caution when not sure of a food's content especially if they have any food related allergies.

For further information regarding the rights you or your loved one may have with respect to this matter contact PARKER & WAICHMAN immediately by calling 1-800-YOURLAWYER or visiting http://www.yourlawyer.com.
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