Public Health & Policy / August 16, 2012

Fad Food Scares: Myth or Reality?

By Charles Platkin, PhD

You’ve heard the catch phrases such as mad cow , bird flu, and E. coli. Whether you flew into a panic or dismissed the media frenzy with a wave of your hand — how much do you really know about these food-industry scares?

According to Mary McCarthy, Ph.D., a researcher in the department of food business and development at University College Cork, Ireland, people tend to be influenced by emotion more than fact. “From the public perspective, hazards we can control tend to be viewed as less risky than those we can’t. Also, the less the public knows about the production process, the more risk it tends to attribute to a food product. In other words, a familiar hazard is viewed differently from an unfamiliar hazard.” Here’s the rundown on the most common “fad scares,” with expert opinions about real concerns versus hype.

Mad Cow Disease

What it is: Mad cow disease, the name commonly used for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a progressive, degenerative, ultimately fatal disease affecting the central nervous system of adult cattle. The exact cause of BSE is not known, but the scientific community generally believes it results from infectious forms of a type of protein called prions, which are normally found in animals.

In cattle with BSE, these abnormal prions initially occur in the small intestine and tonsils and are then found in central nervous tissues, such as the brain and spinal cord, of infected animals at later stages of the disease. According to Henry Miller, M.D., M.S., a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, “Humans don’t get mad cow disease; the disease in humans is actually a variant form of Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (vCJD),” which is believed to be caused by eating beef products from BSE-affected cattle.

How you get it: BSE can be transmitted to humans through the consumption of meat from an infected animal and, once contracted, it is fatal. According to the Food and Drug Administration Web site, “BSE is not transmitted in cow’s milk, even if the milk comes from a cow with BSE.”

Why it matters: The disease is scary mostly because it’s always lethal. However, even with the current case in the news (there have been only three reported cases in cows in the United States to date), experts agree that despite the gravity of the disease once contracted, the risk it poses to public health is extremely low. According to Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, “Mad cow disease poses a minimal risk to U.S. consumers.

The fact is that very few cattle have been found to be infected. Even in Europe, where many cattle were infected and entered the food supply, only 150 people contracted the human form. We’ve run the numbers and believe that mad cow disease poses a very minuscule risk.” Miller agrees, adding that it “is not among the top million things which should be concerning you. Worry about threats near the top of the list: smoking, obesity, traffic accidents or antibiotic-resistant bacteria, not BSE.”

Risk level: Very low.

How to avoid it: The United States Department of Agriculture and FDA have stringent regulations governing which meats can make it into the marketplace. For example, no food or cosmetic product can contain material from any of the following: non-ambulatory, disabled cattle; the organs of cattle 30 months of age or older, in which infectious prions are most likely to occur; mechanically separated beef (a process in which machines scrape small bits of meat off large bones); or cattle that have not been inspected and passed for human consumption.

Unfortunately, there is no way to know if you have actually consumed contaminated meat. “Small amounts of contamination may not be visible or could occur during processing (such as grinding), spreading infectious material throughout the product,” says Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, a national consumer advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Some types of beef are more likely than others to be contaminated, such as cuts that contain a bone and products that have been ground or made with a process called Advanced Meat Recovery (a type of mechanical beef separation described above). “Those who are still concerned, despite the extremely low risk, can avoid processed meat products, such as hot dogs, because they are more likely to have nervous system tissue — but even those foods have minimal risk,” advises Smith DeWaal. Is there any way to cook or prepare meat to eliminate the risk? No, because unlike bacteria or viruses, prions cannot be killed with heat or disinfectants. According to Consumers Union’s, “organic” and “biodynamic” are the most helpful labels for identifying low BSE risk.


More information:

Bird Flu (from eating POULTRY)

What it is: Avian influenza, or “bird flu,” is a contagious disease caused by viruses that normally infect birds and, less commonly, pigs. Avian influenza viruses are highly species-specific but have, on rare occasions, crossed the species barrier to infect humans. According to Miller, this is particularly true of the highly virulent H5N1 strain (Note: Avian flu in general is extremely common and not a threat to humans — it’s the H5N1 specifically that everyone is focused on.), which is spreading rapidly among fowl and which, it is feared, could become a pandemic strain. Nevertheless, there have been only approximately 180 human cases of H5N1 worldwide over the past several years. There’s no record of anyone having contracted it from eating infected chickens, although that mode of transmission cannot be ruled out.

How you get it: According to Miller, humans contract H5N1 from handling infected fowl or their carcasses or from exposure to their secretions or excrement. Direct contact with infected poultry, or surfaces and objects contaminated by their feces, is presently considered the main route of human infection. There may be one or two cases of human-to-human transmission, but this is, to date, extremely uncommon. It is, however, what public health professionals are concerned, about, says Miller.

Why it matters: According to Miller, public health experts and virologists are concerned about the potential of H5N1 avian flu because it already has two of the three characteristics needed to cause a pandemic: It can jump from birds to humans, and it can produce a severe and often fatal illness. If additional genetic evolution makes H5N1 highly transmissible among humans — the third characteristic of a pandemic strain — a devastating worldwide outbreak could become a .

The more H5N1 in fowl, the more likely that a mutant will arise that is easily and sustainably transmissible between humans — and the virus is spreading to more birds in more regions of the world every day. “Bird flu has been found in wild and domestic flocks in Europe, and Europe, consequently, has experienced sharp declines in consumption,” says Smith DeWaal.

“However, there’s no evidence that there is a risk from consumption. People who have gotten sick had close contact with birds — e.g., they are in the chicken coops. There’s just no evidence of people getting avian influenza from eating chicken.”

Risk level: Very low (from eating cooked chicken).

How to avoid it: The World Health Organization reconfirms that when poultry products are safely handled and properly cooked — to 180 degrees Fahrenheit — humans are not at risk of acquiring H5N1 through food. Consumers should, however, be aware of the risk of cross-contamination. Juices from raw poultry and poultry products should never be allowed to touch or mix with items eaten raw. When handling raw poultry or raw poultry products, those involved in food preparation should wash their hands thoroughly and clean and disinfect surfaces that have been in contact with the poultry products. Soap and hot water are sufficient. And, according to DeWaal, you don’t need to carry around a thermometer — just cook as you normally would.

More information:

Non-Stick Coatings on Cooking Pans

What it is: The biggest individual concern with non-stick pans is the fumes they emit at high temperatures that can give humans flu-like symptoms — called “Teflon toxicosis” says Anne Singer of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) — and tend to asphyxiate and kill small birds. However, this is not necessarily caused by the perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is currently where the major controversy exists around Teflon and other products made with PFOA.

The concern stems from the Environmental Protection Agency’s report that PFOA can be carcinogenic in rats, although the same has not been determined for humans. It persists in the liver for years and has been shown to cause liver cancer in rats in lab test after lab test.

Consumer advocacy groups, such as the Environmental Working Group, have been putting pressure on the EPA to conduct more thorough studies, especially with regard to any possible links between the chemical and liver, breast, pancreatic and testicular cancer, as well as PFOA’s potentially toxic effects on the immune system. However, non-stick pans are a relatively minor source of exposure to PFOA.

How you get it: In terms of so-called Teflon toxicosis, the problem occurs when pans containing PFOA and other non-stick surfaces are heated to temperatures at which the coating breaks apart and emits toxic particles and gases. This breakdown has been linked to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pet bird deaths and an unknown number of human illnesses each year. At 680 degrees, Teflon pans release at least six toxic gases, including two carcinogens, two global pollutants and MFA, a chemical lethal to humans at low doses.

The second issue: PFOA is a chemical used in the manufacturing of the coating, causing people to become concerned because they assumed it would enter the bloodstream as a result of being near food cooked in overheated non-stick pans. PFOA, however, is not actually in the coatings. It reaches our bodies because of the millions of consumer products containing PFOA that fill our homes and work and outdoor environments. These include waterproof clothing, stain-proof carpeting, leak-proof food packaging, among others. PFOA is estimated to be in the blood of 96 percent of all Americans.

Why it matters: There’s a lot of controversy surrounding this question, and not a whole lot of solid, irrefutable evidence one way or the other. Both the EPA and DuPont (the company that makes Teflon products) have released findings that the chemical PFOA could raise cholesterol and triglyceride levels in humans. Research on exposed DuPont employees tells us that it causes elevated cholesterol, developmental defects, and immune disorders. DuPont’s study, however, found no link between elevated PFOA blood levels and liver function, blood counts, prostate cancer, leukemia or multiple myeloma. How to avoid it: Avoid overheating your pans.

Risk level: Very high for pet birds; unknown for humans.

More information:

Tags:  Disease Fad food disease Foodborne Illness health Myth Reality

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