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Food for thought - Sue's safe food update

Food for thought - Sue's safe food update

This is the first of a new Safe Food newsletter that I will be producing from time to time to update interested New Zealanders about issues relating to the food they eat. Please feel free to circulate it to anyone you think may be interested in it and if you would like to be on the mailing list, please contact the Wellington Office by phone or email (04-381-4640 or

Despite the establishment of a new Food Safety Agency in July this year, there are many food safety issues of real concern to consumers that are not being addressed by Government.

One of the reasons for this is that New Zealand has lost control over many decisions that are made about our food to the Australia New Zealand Food Authority - recently renamed the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).

FSANZ is an Australian organisation, staffed by Australians, set up under Australian law, which reports to the Australian Minister of Health. (There is a tiny information office in Wellington).

New Zealand joined the organisation in the mid-90's, and has the status of an Australian state - namely one vote out of 10 on the key decision-making body of the agency. No surprises therefore that FSANZ would vote to allow irradiated tropical fruit from Australia to be imported into New Zealand! (see below).

Another problem is that the new Food Safety Agency in New Zealand is not an independent body. Although it is headed by a dynamic official who has tried to take on board consumer concerns (Andrew McKenzie), it is nevertheless located within MAF and so there is always a risk that it will be focussed on protecting overseas exports rather than domestic consumers. This focus is demonstrated in the article below on illegal residues found in domestic meat.

The issues I raise below are positive proof of why, if we are to restore consumer confidence in the food we eat, we need to follow Europe and set up the new food agency as a genuinely independent body. The Australia New Zealand treaty also needs to be renegotiated so that we are represented on FSANZ with the status of a sovereign state, rather than that of an Australian state.

Safe and happy eating Sue Kedgley

Banned chemicals in your meat?

Illegal drugs that sparked a major food scare in England are routinely administered to food-producing animals in New Zealand such as pigs and chickens.

Sounds incredible but it's true. Nitrofuran chemicals are banned in the US and Europe because they are considered to be carcinogenic, but a nitrofuran drug called furazolidone is legal in New Zealand and is fed to pigs, chickens and calves. (These animals can also be fed other veterinary drugs which are banned in many countries overseas such as dimetridazole).

This means New Zealand consumers are being exposed to residues of potentially cancer-causing chemicals in their meat.

The UK Food Standards Authority recently demanded that retailers withdraw shrimps imported from South East Asia after residues of nitrofuran were found in them. Similarly, Tesco supermarkets had to recall chicken meat from all their supermarkets around the country when nitrofuran residues were found in chicken meat.

Following the food scare in the UK, MAF in New Zealand issued a directive to farmers, in July this year, warning them not to use chemicals such as furazolidone which are banned overseas on animals destined for export. It said it would no longer approve the feeding of these drugs to animals we export overseas unless agreed tagging and tracking measures were in place.

But it placed no similar restriction on meat for domestic consumption - or on the registration of furazolidone to pigs and poultry - presumably because we don't export pig or chicken meat, but only sell it to New Zealanders (and some South Pacific nations).

Apparently the Government thinks it's fine for New Zealanders to be exposed to residues of these potentially cancer-causing compounds, but not our overseas customers!

I challenged the Minister of Agriculture in the House about why the Government allows veterinary drugs that are banned overseas because of concerns about their safety, to be fed to food-producing animals such as pigs and chickens. In reply, the Minister waffled, "All I can say is that our authorities are meticulous in this matter, and are influenced by pure, honest science rather than campaigns by non-government organisations which simply want to cause alarm, despondency and fear amongst the public."

Hello! Furazolidone has been banned in the USA and Europe for years because of concerns that it can induce cancer and birth defects. Furazolidone (and other drugs we feed to animals such as dimetridazole) are on the European Commission's list of compounds which are considered too dangerous to set maximum residue levels for - the maximum amount of any chemical that is allowed to be found in food products. This means there is no safe level for residues of furazolidone in meat.

Australian meat disguised as New Zealand meat?

My curiosity was recently aroused when I noticed that my local New World supermarket no longer displays the New Zealand Quality Mark on their meat.

Quality Mark was launched with considerable fanfare a few years ago. It's a quality assurance programme which guarantees the quality of New Zealand beef and, importantly, assures consumers that meat they buy does not come from animals that have been fed hormonal growth promotants.

Was it merely a coincidence, I wondered, that Quality Mark was quietly disappearing from supermarkets, or was there some ulterior motive at work here - like the presence of non-New Zealand meat on our supermarket shelves?

Inquiries revealed that is indeed the case. Our market, it turns out, has been flooded recently with cheap Australian beef. The Australians have a glut of beef because Japan stopped importing foreign beef after BSE (mad cow disease) was discovered in Japan earlier this year.

New Zealand imported 2274 tonnes of beef and veal from Australia this year and apparently some supermarkets (especially in the Wellington area) have been snapping this cheap meat up. The only sign to alert consumers that they were buying Australian, rather than New Zealand, meat has been the quiet removal of the Quality Mark.

This raises the question - surely consumers are entitled to know whether food they are about to purchase has been produced in New Zealand or elsewhere? (If only for those of us who choose to eat New Zealand produce and support New Zealand farmers).

Why isn't there a requirement for supermarkets and retailers to identify where food originates from. This 'country of origin' labelling is especially needed in the meat area, as more and more meat is imported into the country. (see below)

In Australia, 'country of origin' labelling is mandatory and the USA and other countries are introducing it as well. You would think 'country of origin' labelling would be enthusiastically supported by government and retailers here - as it would encourage New Zealanders to buy New Zealand produce.

But no! It turns out our government is opposing 'country of origin' labelling - for reasons I have not been able to deduce - and this is creating a difference of opinion between Australia and New Zealand.

A prize (dinner at Bellamy's) for anyone who can come up with any good reason as to why our government should oppose 'country of origin' labelling?

Anyone for Chinese pork?

Most New Zealanders probably assume the meat they buy comes from New Zealand. But more and more is being imported from overseas. We now import a considerable amount of pork from China, Canada, Australia and the USA. In June 2002, for example, we scoffed 1.5 million kilos of imported pig meat. That's an increase of 75 percent on the previous June, and a hell of a lot of pork and bacon.

Another dinner at Bellamy's for anyone who can come up with any good reason as to why we should import 32 percent of our pork from overseas?

Much of this imported pork comes in as raw carcass meat and is processed into salami, sausages, bacon etc. The label then says the product is a 'product of New Zealand' and fails to mention the fact that the pig was actually farmed overseas, and that the producers did not have to meet New Zealand regulations when it comes to things like feed and hormones. Another good reason why we need country of origin labelling in New Zealand.

Pssst - more things you probably didn't want to know about pork

Speaking of pork, late last year our Government (specifically, the Animal Remedies Board) secretly approved the use of a pig growth hormone recombinant porcine somatotropin (PST) for use on pigs.

PST is a growth hormone made by genetically engineered bacteria. It is injected into the necks of pigs, using a rapid gas-fired injection gun, every day for the last 30 days of a their lives, and makes them grow up to 20 percent more.

A similar hormone for cows, bovine somatotropin, was refused approval by MAF last year because of concerns about European consumers refusing to buy hormone-treated milk and meat. This pig growth hormone is highly controversial and is not even approved by the FDA for use in America.

When I made this public, the Pork Industry became worried about consumer reaction and voted at its AGM not to support the use of PST in New Zealand. It further agreed that it would not sell any PST administered pork in its two retail brands - 100% New Zealand Pork and 100% New Zealand Trim Pork.

The Pork Industry's Chief Executive Angus Davidson is categoric that "it's not being used here in New Zealand". But he admits that since it is legal there is nothing to stop New Zealand pig farmers from administering it to pigs. Particularly since there is as yet no monitoring system in place to ensure pig farmers are not injecting their pigs with PST.

There are serious animal welfare implications for pigs injected with the hormone. Studies show there is a relationship between use of this hormone and the increased frequency and severity of leg disorders such as lameness, which is hardly surprising given the increased weight this hormone promotes and the lack of exercise available to factory farmed pigs.

Some documents were released to me under the OIA, and they show that use of this hormone makes pigs sleep more - up to 83 per cent of their lives - and the series of injections can lead to abscesses. Advice from the hormone manufacturer is to inject pigs in the neck to prevent the meat being downgraded.

Given that the hormone can be used right up to the date of slaughter, Australian officials have acknowledged there would likely be residues of the artificial hormone in pork from treated pigs.

Meanwhile, New Zealand is importing 986 tonnes of pork from Australia where about 30 percent of pig farmers do use the growth hormone PST. That means if you eat Australian pork there is a one in three chance it will have been injected with PST.

Since most of this pork is not even labelled as being Australian in origin, I asked the Minister of Food Safety Annette King for advice on how consumers could avoid eating pork that could have residues of PST in it? Her response? "Consumers can choose to only purchase pork with the Pork Industry brand."

The problem is that this brand only applies to some fresh pork, not to processed meat products. A (pork if you want) dinner for anyone with suggestions on how consumers can avoid purchasing PST treated bacon, sausages or salami, or other processed product (other than not eating it at all or buying organic pork).

Whatever happened to the voluntary GE label?

Two years ago, the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Genetic Modification instructed the Government to 'facilitate the development of a voluntary 'GE-free' labelling scheme. 18 months later a meeting of 'stakeholders' was duly held to discuss the proposal.

Nothing has been heard since then. I hope it hasn't fallen into the too hard basket, and will keep you posted on any further developments. Don't hold your breath.

Speaking of GE

I read with interest a story in the Australian media late last month that revealed traces of the controversial GE corn StarLink have been found in Australia's food.

You may recall that StarLink was approved in the US only for animal consumption but found its way into the food chain, not only in America but as far away as Japan. At the time, Food Standards Australia New Zealand said they were satisfied there was no evidence it ever entered Australia or New Zealand. It is illegal in both countries.

But now GeneScan, an independent testing lab in Australia, has confirmed that they found a positive result for the contaminant in an overseas sample coming into Australia.

GeneScan business development manager Mark Humble also revealed that GeneScan was surprised to detect GE in nearly one third of the 1139 commercial food samples it tested last year. He said most of the positive samples were in flour and powder products, and came from US GE soy and corn.

Interestingly, GeneScan is running a private business, testing for private customers, and there is no requirement on them to inform either the public or the Government about positive test results.

Australia and New Zealand import many of the same foodstuffs from overseas, and I have long been concerned about the lack of monitoring for GE contamination in food here, so I made some inquiries to find out whether there is any monitoring to speak of going on here.

According to the Food Safety Authority (FSA), the onus is primarily on New Zealand manufacturers to comply with the GE labelling standards, which started last December. However, in their wisdom, FSANZ allowed warehouse stock to be exempt from labelling for another 12 months, so there are gaps in the regime.

The good news is that the Government has at last started setting up a GE food monitoring programme - roughly five years since it became obvious that we urgently needed one. The bad news is that it's not exactly transparent.

The FSA said they expect to audit around 10 percent of the 3,000 - 4,000 businesses considered to be most likely to use GE ingredients during the next 18 months. They are going to rely largely on educating food producers, but won't rule out enforcement action (including prosecution).

In answer to queries, the FSA said the process said a book audit will be done - finding out where companies get their supplies from, and going through their books with them. FSA would like access to any sampling and tracking the company has done. Some samples will be given to the ESR for testing. Imported foods that state they are 'GE-free' will usually be tested to make sure they are.

When I wanted to know a bit more - like how many samples will be tested, and whether companies are obliged to reveal all past test results (including any GE contaminated ones) to the FSA - the shutters came down. The FSA said the information was not published material, and my questions had now entered the realm of an official information act request. Consequently, I've put in an official written request for more information and I'll keep you posted, hopefully in the next newsletter.

Antibiotic bacteria with that chicken, madam?

The Government has taken no action yet to follow up my discovery earlier in the year that a single supermarket chicken was contaminated with five different antibiotic resistant bacteria.

I commissioned EnviroLink Laboratory in Christchurch to test a chicken chosen at random because I was concerned that the routine feeding of antibiotics to chickens could lead to contaminated poultry. And unsurprisingly, the results showed very strongly that that was the case.

The lab found VRE (Vancomycin resistant Enterococcus faecalis) - a bacterium which causes human illness and is of concern to doctors because it is resistant to vancomycin, an antibiotic of last resort. They also found two strains of E.coli bacteria resistant to gentamicin, an important antibiotic used in hospitals to treat blood poisoning, peritonitis, and other serious infections. Two strains of tetracyline resistant E.coli bacteria were also isolated.

This is a serious health issue as resistant bacteria on the chicken meat could contaminate a cook's hands, kitchen surfaces, cooked or raw food and then colonise the bowels of people eating that food. Antibiotic resistant bacteria such as salmonella, campylobacter or E coli make people sick. Others do not directly affect humans but they can pass their resistance to antibiotics to other harmful bacteria, making infections much harder and more expensive to treat

You'd think the Government would take it seriously too, but it seems not. When I made the results of these tests public, I called for the introduction of random testing of chicken meat. In the initial flurry of publicity, an ESR scientist suggested a monitoring and testing programme would be introduced to ensure consumers that the chicken meat they purchase is not similarly contaminated

But since then, zilch. No random testing has been instituted or any programme put in place, that I am aware of, to try to reduce the incidence of resistant bacteria on chicken meat.

It is highly likely that my chicken was not just a random occurrence, and that many other chickens are similarly contaminated. Choice magazine (the Australian equivalent of Consumer magazine) found Vancomycin resistant Enterocci on 11 percent of the 200 odd chickens it sampled over there.

A New Zealand microbiologist has found similar levels in the chickens he has been testing. He will report his findings soon in a major international report.

The Ministry of Food Safety, however, appears to be in denial about the well-established link between the routine feeding of antibiotics to animals and the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria. In the post-election briefing to the Minister of Food Safety, officials said 'there is no evidence to date that the use of in-feed antibiotics in animals has prompted resistance in any human pathogens'.

This contrasts with increasing evidence from overseas, as well as from official reports from the World Health Organisation, the UK and other countries, that there is a well established link. In 1999 the British Advisory Committee on Microbial Safety of Food concluded, for example, that the evidence 'shows conclusively that giving antibiotics to animals results in the emergence of some resistant bacteria which infect humans.'

Or just a little streptomycin on your peaches?

Its not only poultry and pig farmers that routinely use antibiotics. New Zealand pip and stone fruit industries spray the human antibiotic streptomycin onto pip fruit, stone fruit (including apples, pears and peaches) and seedling tomatoes to combat fire blight and bacterial spot.

The Minister for Food Safety, Annette King, says no figures are collected but suggests about 1.2 tonnes of streptomycin are used on crops each year.

She says consumers needn't worry about whether there are any antibiotic residues on their fruit, however, because horticulturalists are supposed to stop spraying the streptomycin well before the fruit is picked. "When used as directed, this use is unlikely to lead to significant residues being present on the edible portion of the treated crop." (Very reassuring).

An Expert Panel on Antibiotic Resistance recommended that fruit and vegetables should be monitored for streptomycin residues. But this has never happened. So how would we know whether all farmers stop using the spray when they are supposed to, or whether antibiotic residues remain in fruit?

The answer is that we simply don't know. And this is a real concern, given that fruit and tomatoes are normally eaten raw.

Irradiated Mango Anyone?

Luscious, ripe mangos might look like a perfect healthy treat to take home from the supermarket. But consider this. Our government is going along with moves which will soon allow mangos to be sold in New Zealand which have been grown in Queensland, the fruit fly capital of the world, and zapped with the equivalent of 6 million chest x-rays. And it's not just mangos, we're talking papaya, litchi, breadfruit, carambola, custard apple, longan, mangosteen and rambutan - the whole range of tropical fruit from Australia.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (which recently replaced ANZFA) is in the final stages of approving a standard which will allow irradiated tropical fruit - irradiated to much higher doses than even the USA allows - to be imported into New Zealand.

I can understand why the Australian government is desperate to allow tropical fruit to be irradiated - it will allow them to export tropical fruit from fruit fly infested parts of Australia. But I am at a loss to understand why our government would go along with such an idiotic plan. Why would we want to import tropical fruit from Queensland when it is literally crawling with fruit flies, often called the 'foot and mouth' of horticulture, when we can get the same tropical fruits from other countries which don't need to use this controversial technology.

The Minister of Food Safety, Annette King, confirmed at a select committee last week, that New Zealand officials are going along with the proposal, and see no particular problems with irradiating tropical fruit.

This is odd, given that most irradiation plants use cobalt 60, a by-product of plutonium, in the irradiation process, and that irradiation damages the molecular structure of food, and causes permanent changes on the inside of food. It also partially destroys Vitamins C, A, E, and thiamine, as well as fatty acids which are crucial for good health. Fresh fruit suffer the greatest amount of destruction by irradiation.

Even more concerning is the presence of unique chemicals called cyclobutanones in irradiated food; chemicals created as a by-product of the irradiation process. These chemicals are never found naturally in food.

A ground-breaking 2001 French/German study raised serious concerns when they found that one particular cyclobutanone could cause genetic and cellular damage to human and rat cells, and genetic damage to rats "including promotion of colon carcinogenesis. A more recent study showed two other cyclobutanones caused genetic and cellular damage to human cells. Still other cyclobutanones have never been tested.

These toxicity studies have ignited the debate overseas. So hot is it in fact, that both the European Union and the international body Codex have delayed making new decisions about irradiation until more is known.

Surely, we should not allow irradiated tropical fruit into New Zealand until we have the results of these Codex deliberations and further evidence on these toxicity studies.

Woefully Inadequate Labelling

The Government justifies ending the moratorium on this controversial new technology because irradiated food will be labelled, and consumers will have a choice whether to consume irradiated food or not. In fact the labels our government has agreed to in FSANZ are confusing and misleading and will not give consumers a real choice. Instead of the standard consumer label, the international radura symbol with the words 'treated with irradiation', our labels will simply state that a product has been treated with 'ionising electrons' or with 'ionising radiation'. How many consumers will understand exactly what that means?

Tropical fruit won't need to have any individual labels on it - only a sign near a stand of fruit. And there will be no requirement for restaurants, delicatessens or the take-away food industry to identify irradiated food. This is totally inadequate, as it is essential that irradiated food is clearly labelled for all consumers.

Even in the US irradiated food must be displayed on separate in-store units. We should have the same requirement, and there should be no exemptions for restaurants, delis or take-away bars. The international radura symbol - a stylised flower - which identifies irradiated food should be on the label.

The Minister has admitted to me that she's unsure whether irradiated fruit can be called 'fresh'. She said in answer to my written Parliamentary Question that: "The Commerce Commission describes as 'fresh' as generally meaning food that has not been frozen or preserved by any method, and which has been offered for sale at the earliest possible time. The Commerce Commission has not yet considered food irradiation and any implications for what 'fresh' means."

One hardly needs a Commerce Commission ruling to work out that since irradiation is a severe method of food preservation it would clearly not meet their definition of 'fresh.'

Consumer Resistance to Irradiated Food

The nuclear industry has been pushing irradiation for more than 30 years but consumers, reluctant to eat food that has been 'nuked', have strongly resisted the technology and it has never taken off. However there is now an international campaign to impose the technology on reluctant consumers around the world, and the latest FSANZ move is part of this.

The EU only allows dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings to be irradiated, although the debate continues about whether to add other foods to that list. Members of the European fruit, dairy and meat industries are very wary of a potential consumer backlash if irradiation is allowed to be used on their products, fearing it could be used to hide unhygienic practices or to delay ripening. Surveys done in 1993, 1995 and 2002 showed that no major UK supermarkets plan to stock irradiated foods due to the reluctance of consumers to buy them.

We can expect the same level of consumer resistance here - provided consumers can work out which foods are irradiated.

Only eight countries allow fruit to be irradiated: Brazil, Croatia, Ghana, Israel, Mexico, Pakistan, Turkey and USA. Not a great club for New Zealand to join.

Biosecurity Risk

Fruit-fly poses one of the gravest risks to New Zealand horticulture. It's at the top of our critical quarantine list. If any fruit fly larvae manage to get through the irradiation process, we could face a huge horticultural disaster.

Fruit flies can survive high doses of irradiation and one international study has found that a breed of fruit fly larvae could remain fertile even after being irradiated. But there is no way of checking through a quarantine inspection whether live larvae are sterile or not.

The weirdest thing about this whole process is that the importing company, Surebeam, hasn't yet been required to prove that irradiation will be 100 percent effective against fruit fly and their larvae. The Government agency responsible for biosecurity, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, has not yet officially assessed irradiation as an effective treatment for tropical fruits.

Surely that's completely illogical. The first step should have been for MAF to assess the efficacy of the treatment. It seems crazy that the ANZ Food Safety Council has spent all this time and energy assessing an application which might not be able to keep our horticulture safe from fruit fly infestation.

Finally, it's ironic that a previous Labour Government imposed a moratorium on food irradiation in New Zealand in 1989, and that the present Labour Government has ended the moratorium and allowed irradiated food to be sold here for the first time. In 2001, the ANZ Food Safety Council gave the go-ahead for herbal teas, herbs and spices to be exposed to radiation doses over three times the international safety limit of 10 kilograys. This year it's tropical fruit. Where will it end?

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