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Dangers of Hidden Poisons in Your Food

Food Poisoning

Story at-a-glance -

  • A Pew Charitable Trusts report revealed major deficiencies in the National Residue Program that could threaten Americans’ health
  • The NRP is responsible for testing food samples for the presence of approved and unapproved veterinary drugs, pesticides, and environmental contaminants
  • Many dangerous chemicals are excluded from testing and no system is in place to keep up with emerging contaminants

By Dr. Mercola

You may read food labels and make an effort to avoid risky food additives and artificial ingredients in the food you eat, but some of the most damaging poisons in your food are found nowhere on a label.

Drug residues, pesticides, industrial chemicals and other environmental contaminants pose a serious risk in foods like meat and poultry.

To protect U.S. consumers from such hazards, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the National Residue Program (NRP).

The NRP, via FSIS inspectors, is responsible for testing food samples for the presence of approved and unapproved veterinary drugs, pesticides, and environmental contaminants.

If harmful contaminants are found, the FSIS has the authority to impose fines or even close down facilities, while repeat violators are maintained in a list that is available to buyers of livestock.

In theory, the program should help to keep the U.S. food supply safe, but a new report by The Pew Charitable Trusts revealed serious problems.1

'Major Deficiencies' Found in the National Residue Program

The Pew report, "The National Residue Program for Meat, Poultry, and Egg Products: An Evaluation," revealed major deficiencies that could threaten Americans' health. Among them:2

1. Not Testing for Substances That Pose a Significant Public Health Threat

The NRP is falling short because some chemicals of concern are not even being monitored.

Among them are dioxins, which NRP says aren't tested for because no maximum safe concentrations have been established. Dioxins are known to cause cancer and developmental and neurological disorders.

2. No Public Documentation or Strict Standards for Selecting Compounds to Monitor

NRP maintains a published risk ranking that was established to prioritize which compounds to monitor in the food supply.

You would think that chemicals that score higher on this system would therefore be monitored, but according to the Pew report, NRP does not follow their own risk ranking system.

An example is dexamethasone, a steroid hormone that was identified as a higher risk than several monitored compounds. Dexamethasone may lead to spikes in blood sugar levels in diabetics, but it is not monitored. No explanation is given as to why this compound is excluded from monitoring.

3. Inconsistent Process for Determining Which Compounds to Monitor

How the NRP picks and chooses which drugs and other compounds to monitor remains a mystery. For instance, the pain-reliever dipyrone is ranked in the NRP's highest toxicity category but is not included in testing (while compounds that scored lower in toxicity are tested for).

Meanwhile, anti-microbial drugs fluoroquinolones are included in testing because they're illegal to use, but not based on a risk analysis.

4. Lack of a Process to Address Emerging Risks

The NRP does not have a procedure in place to update its sampling and testing program based on emerging risks, such as new animal feed additives or byproducts of biofuel production.

Other chemicals of concern that are increasing in use, including brominated flame retardants, are not included in the NRP.

Pollutants From CAFOs Threaten Public Health

It's of grave concern that the government program in charge of monitoring for toxins in meat and poultry is not doing its job, at least not up to a high standard.

It's well known that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are a major source of pollution that threatens public health. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC):3

"On most factory farms, animals are crowded into relatively small areas; their manure and urine are funneled into massive waste lagoons. These cesspools often break, leak or overflow, sending dangerous microbes, nitrate pollution and drug-resistant bacteria into water supplies.

Factory-farm lagoons also emit toxic gases such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and methane. What's more, the farms often spray the manure onto land, ostensibly as fertilizer — these 'sprayfields' bring still more of these harmful substances into our air and water.

Yet in spite of the huge amounts of animal wastes that factory farms produce, they have largely escaped pollution regulations; loopholes in the law and weak enforcement share the blame."

CAFO "lagoons," for instance, may span seven acres and hold up to 45 million gallons of wastewater. The waste is scraped or flushed into the lagoons, and though they're supposed to be sealed off from the surrounding environment, leaks, ruptures and overflows often occur.

Even if the waste manages to stay contained, they release toxic gasses that harm nearby residents and workers. Meanwhile, manure may be pumped out of the lagoons and sprayed onto fields.

Manure from healthy, naturally-raised animals can be a good source of fertilizer, but these "sprayfields" are often overloaded with chemical-laden manure as a way for CAFOs to get rid of it. The toxic waste then runs off of the fields, polluting area rivers and streams.

E. Coli From CAFOs Contaminating Leafy Greens

Vegetables, including leafy greens, are often implicated in outbreaks of foodborne illness. You may be wondering how vegetables have become such a minefield for food safety.

In some cases, it's because the plots where the vegetables are grown are located too close to CAFOs, and they're becoming contaminated with E. coli from dust and manure. It's quite common for produce to grow adjacent to CAFOs.

Guidelines require greens be planted a minimum of about 394 feet from cattle feedlots, but research published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology found contamination occurred on greens planted 590 feet from CAFOs.4

In fact, researchers tested greens grown about 197 feet (60 meters), 394 feet (120 meters) and 590 feet (180 meters) from CAFOs and found E.coli bacteria (including the potentially deadly O157:H7) at all plot distances.

The potential for illness rises since leafy greens are often consumed raw. According to the researchers:5

"E. coli O157:H7 was recovered from 3.5 percent of leafy green samples per plot at 60 (meters), which was higher than the 1.8 percent of positive samples per plot at 180 (meters), indicating a decrease in contamination as distance from the feedlot was increased.

Although E. coli O157:H7 was not recovered from air samples at any distance, total E. coli was recovered from air samples at the feedlot edge and all plot distances, indicating that airborne transport of the pathogen can occur."

They concluded, "Current leafy green field distance guidelines of 120 m (400 feet) may not be adequate to limit the transmission of E. coli O157:H7 to produce crops planted near concentrated animal feeding operations."6

True Cost of CAFO-Related Food Poisoning May Be Underestimated

Most of the costs related to food poisoning are based on a single, acute infection. But such costs, for instance the 1.25 billion dollar annual costs of food poisoning in Australia, do not take into account cases of people who don't seek medical attention or those who end up with long-term issues.

Research suggests that pathogens that cause food poisoning, such as E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter and certain viruses, may lead to long-term effects, including irritable bowel syndrome, kidney failure, arthritis and Guillain-Barre syndrome. As reported by The Citizen:7

"Professor Enzo Palombo, Ph.D., of Swinburne University's Faculty of Science Engineering and Technology, said that people infected with salmonella may have only a mild reaction, but could end up with 'reactive arthritis,' which commonly affects the knees and ankles. Other pathogens (for example, campylobacter and some viruses) can also cause this complication."

Narelle Fegan, PH.D., a food microbiologist with Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, also told The Citizen:8

"Mostly, the trends relate to seeing the usual pathogens — be they salmonella, campylobacter, pathogenic E coli, listeria, etc — in different kinds of foods where we may not have seen them before … E coli O157, a bacteria found mostly in cattle and well recognized for being associated with consumption of undercooked beef products, has now turned up on spinach and, even more bizarrely, in cookie dough."

Glyphosate: Another Ubiquitous Food Poison

Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, has been detected in blood and urine samples. Further, U.S. women had maximum glyphosate levels that were more than eight times higher than levels found in urine of Europeans, according to laboratory testing commissioned by the organizations Moms Across America and Sustainable Pulse.9

Where is the glyphosate exposure coming from? It's likely coming from food (although it could be in water as well). We don't know exactly how much glyphosate may be in your food because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not test for it. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just announced in February 2016 that it may begin testing foods for glyphosate.

However, for now the analysis suggests that eating non-organic, genetically-engineered (GE) foods (the prime candidates for Roundup spraying) is associated with higher glyphosate levels in your body. The Detox Project explained:10

"Glyphosate levels have been found to be significantly higher in urine of humans who ate non-organic food, compared with those who ate mostly organic food. Chronically ill people showed significantly higher glyphosate residues in their urine than healthy people.

In a separate detailed analysis, glyphosate was found in the urine of cows, humans, and rabbits. Cows kept in a GM-free area had significantly lower glyphosate concentrations in urine than cows in conventional livestock systems."

How to Find Chemical-Free, Humanely Raised Meat

Naturally-raised, pastured meat, preferably organic, is virtually the only type of meat that is healthy to eat, in my view. Fortunately, many grocery chains are now responding to customer demand, and will provide at least a small assortment of grass-fed meats.

The least expensive way to obtain grass-fed beef and other locally produced organic foods, however, is often from your local farmer. By purchasing your meat from smaller farms that raise their animals in a humane fashion, according to organic principles, you're promoting the proliferation of such farms, which in the end will benefit everyone, including all the animals.

The organic industry also tends to favor far more humane butchering practices, which is another important part of "ethical meat." The following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods in your local area that has been raised in a humane, sustainable manner:

  • Local Harvest – This website will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
  • Eat Wild – With more than 1,400 pasture-based farms, Eat Wild's Directory of Farms is one of the most comprehensive sources for grass-fed meat and dairy products in the United States and Canada.
  • Farmers' Markets –  A national listing of farmers' markets.
  • Eat Well Guide–  Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals – The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
  • FoodRoutes – The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.