Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Food additives and contaminants continue...

Pesticides and consumer protection

Food law is very clear on the subject of the excessive use of pesticides and penalties for side-stepping the regulations are such that it pays growers to adhere closely to the letter of the law. Most pesticides may not be sprayed over food crops within stipulated times of harvesting (which vary according to the type of pesticide) and

this aspect is particularly strictly monitored by the Departments of Health and Agriculture.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that it is in any case not in growers' interests to use excessive amounts of pesticides on their crops, purely from an economic point of view, since agricultural chemicals are extremely expensive. Nor is it worth a grower's while to risk his reputation - and his livelihood - by careless practices which can easily

be detected.

`Preventing contamination'

The use of pesticides is only one area of food production where the problem of contamination has to be guarded against. In fact, a host of measures are enforced to prevent the poisoning of food by microorganisms. A good example is the law that forbids fresh meat and processed ready-to-eat meat products to be sold side by side, as fresh meat is highly contaminated by bacteria. These are of course destroyed when the meat is cooked, but can in the meantime contaminate the processed product. A case in point was the well- publicised outbreak of salmonella poisoning in North Wales in July 1989 which was traced, according to the press, to a shop selling both fresh and cooked meats. About three hundred cases resulted, with

Diet Start

three deaths.

Likewise, it is against the law to sell a 'blown' can since it could contain the deadly toxin, clostridium botulinum.

Health inspectors visit all food manufacturers and retail food outlets on a regular basis; samples of products are passed on to government laboratories where they are analysed; anyone found to be contravening the health regulations is taken to court. A case in point is the `boerewors scandal' of a couple of years ago which highlighted the use of prohibited animal off cuts in the production of this traditional sausage; the culprits were brought to book and fined heavily.

It should be added that a good deal of 'informal' policing also takes place amongst food producers themselves, who are always on the lookout for malpractices by their competitors in the marketplace! While this should in no way be regarded as a substitute for controlled monitoring, it undoubtedly contributes to consumer protection. One important regulation which is however flouted fairly often is the law stating that people who serve or handle unwrapped food behind shop counters must always wear either plastic or rubber gloves while doing so. (They are in fact required to wear hair nets as well.) Since the hygienic aspects of foodhandling are extremely important, consumers should make a practice of reporting sloppiness in this area, either to store managers or to their local Department of Health.

The sweetener scare

The heart of the problem of food additive legislation is how tointerpret data which gives results that do not translate simply into an immediate threat to public health. A prime example of this is the controversy that erupted over the compounds used in artificial sweeteners, both in the USA and in this country.

Artificial sweeteners have recently come under considerable scrutiny in this country. This follows widely publicized research in the USA after the cyclamate scare in 1970, when the Food and Drug Administration banned this compound due to the fact that laboratory tests on rats which had consumed huge amounts of cyclamate indicated that it may be carcinogenic. Then in 1977, saccharin came under suspicion when the FDA questioned the safety of that compound. The concern resulted from the restrictions imposed by the Delaney Clause (see above) and the hysterical public response it provoked is still causing repercussions today.

However, as it turned out, the quantities eaten by the rats were so high that they probably would have died of obesity long before if they had taken a comparative amount of sweetener in the form of sugar - meaning in effect that valid assumptions could not be made from this data. It should therefore be stressed that there is no evidence that, taken in reasonable quantities, any artifical sweetener is harmful to human health.

In this country the law with regard to artifical sweeteners states that any of some twenty permitted compounds may be used in food products separately or together, but that the name of the sweetener must be given, followed by wording stating that the compound is an artificial sweetener. Next to this, the producer must state whether or not sugar has been added as well. Certain sweeteners provide small amounts of kilojoules and the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act states that this must be indicated on the label as follows: . no
permitted sweetener shall be described as low energy', 'low kilojoule', 'non-nutritive', 'artificial' or words with a similar meaning, unless the energy value of the equivalent of 1 teaspoonful of sucrose is not more than 5kJ'.

... andjoyohoxing