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SMC Heads-Up: Water limits, food labelling and yeti

Issue 286 4-10 July 2014

Water quality standards confirmed

New standards for freshwater, announced by the Government yesterday, for the first time set quantitative limits for water quality.

Incorporating the national "bottom lines" for water quality put forward for consultation last year, the new standards will take effect from 1 August 2014, with a deadline for implementation by regional councils moved forward to 2025.

The amended standards include limits on the levels of algae, bacteria and excess nutrients - such as nitrogen and phosphorus - in water bodies.

As explained in a Government release:

"This means, for the first time, New Zealand rivers and lakes will have minimum requirements that must be achieved so the water quality is suitable for ecosystem and human health.

According to the Ministry for the Environment, more than 60 freshwater scientists from public, private and academic sectors across New Zealand were involved in determining the with numeric values proposed for the national standards."

A high-level summary including infographics on freshwater quantity and quality was also released.

The Science Media Centre approached freshwater experts for their reaction to the announcement.

Dr Angus McIntosh, Professor of Freshwater Ecology, University of Canterbury, comments:

"Setting limits is a good start, but we need to aim higher to ensure freshwater ecosystem health. Many scientists were involved in this process, but what the government has agreed to is the minimum they could have done given the level of concern for New Zealand's water resources. We do need achievable limits, but they also need to be effective."

Dr Roger Young, Coastal Freshwater Group Manager (Freshwater), Cawthron Institute, comments:

"The national objectives framework that is part of this National Policy Statement is a valuable start in establishing a framework for freshwater management. However, there is considerable scope for improvement if it is to be effective in improving the management of all water bodies."

You can read more expert reaction on the Science Media Centre website.

On the science radar this week...

Britain's TB fears, kangaroo's five-foot hop,exoskeletons, the wasp necropolis and 'flying saucers'.

Less-than-stellar response on food labels

A new voluntary food labelling system aims to give Australian and New Zealand consumers greater insight in the nutritional value of their food at a glance. Will it lead to healthier choices?

Ministry for Primary Industries

Minister for Food Safety Nikki Kaye announced that the government will be adopting a new Health Star Rating food labelling system, at the Australian and New Zealand Ministers' food forum in Sydney last week.

The front-of-pack labels use a five star scale to reflect the nutritional value of the food product.

According to the Ministry for Primary Industries, the system takes into account four aspects of a food associated with increasing the risk factors for chronic diseases (energy, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars) along with certain 'positive' aspects of a food such as fruit and vegetable content, and in some instances dietary fibre and protein content.

The Ministry expects it will be six to 12 months before the label starts appearing on shelves.

Experts contacted by the SMC expressed some concern that the star system may not be the most effective tool to communicate nutritional information to consumers, noting the Traffic Light label system had been rejected by policy makers, despite research showing it promotes healthy choices.

However they were unanimous in their view that the Healthy Star Rating labels were 'a step in the right direction'.

Dr Helen Eyles, Research Fellow, National Institute for Health Innovation, The University of Auckland, comments:

"The new front-of-pack Health Star Rating food label on its own is not going to solve our alarming rates of obesity and diet-related disease in New Zealand. However, it is a positive step in the right direction, and one component of a much-needed multi-factorial approach to improving New Zealanders health."

Dr Ninya Maubach, Heart Foundation White-Parsons Research Fellow, Department of Marketing, University of Otago, commented:

"As the scheme is voluntary, and many in the industry seem committed to retaining the Daily Intake Guide, it is unclear how widely this new label will be adopted. If only a small number of products include this label, then the potential for it to affect consumers' shopping patterns will be reduced because comparisons will remain hard to make."

You can read more expert reaction on the Science Media Centre website.

No yetis yet - mythbusting research

Through DNA analysis of 36 different hair samples, Oxford researchers have found no proof of the existence of an anomalous primate like the yeti or bigfoot.

Legends of the existence of a yeti, sasquatch or almasty have long been avoided by the scientific community, which has left advocates of these creatures feeling "rejected by science".

So in 2012 a research team from Oxford University led by geneticist Professor Brian Sykes put out a call for samples of hair from museums and private collectors to be tested for proof of the existence of one of these creatures.

Fifty seven samples were received from all over the world, with half from the USA and the rest from Russia and South Asia. Non-hair fibres such as grass and glass were eliminated from the samples, then 36 were chosen for genetic testing. DNA analysis of the samples was then compared to the GenBank database to look for matches with known animal species.

The results were published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Some of the samples failed to have DNA extracted, however 30 of the samples were genetically matched to known species ranging from bears, sheep,dogs raccoons,porcupines - and in one sample from Texas a human.

Interestingly two samples from the Himalayas- one from India and the other from Bhutan, came back with a 100% match to a polar bear which existed 40,000 years ago, and not to any other known living bear. Researchers suspect the golden-brown hair from India and red-brown hair from Bhutan are likely an unidentified bear species or a colour variant of polar bears or polar bear hybrids.

Either way, there is no genetic evidence of a yeti yet, however the scientists pointed out that while there study cannot prove that these creatures exist, it can neither disprove it.

You can read a round up of New Zealand coverage of the research on the Science Media Centre website.

Written by SMC Science Journalism Fellow Pippa Grierson.

Quoted: TVNZ Breakfast

"Ancient genetics has progressed so fast in the past decade that you would be really pushing it to say nothing is impossible."

Dr Richard Holdaway, Canterbury paleobiologist, on the chances of resurrecting the moa

The Friday video...

NASA's staff sniffer

Policy news and developments

Second pipe: Government-owned company Research and Educational Advanced Network New Zealand Ltd (REANNZ) has entered into a $65 million anchor tenancy contract with Hawaiki Cable Ltd for a proposed new international telecommunications cable.

Farm buildings exempt: Farm buildings are to be exempt from the requirements for assessments under the Government's earthquake-prone buildings policy


Health star calculator: MPI has launched an online calculator that will enable food businesses to determine their products' nutritional value under the Health Star Rating food labelling system.

Prescribing rules: The Ministry of Health has announced changes to legislation broadening the scope for prescribing by nurse practitioners, optometrists and midwives.

New From the SMC

Experts respond:

Health star labels: Experts comment on the new voluntary nutritional labelling system.

Freshwater: Experts offer clear commentary on the new freshwater quality standards.

In the News:

Yetis: not yet: A DNA analysis of hair from supposed yetis, bigfoots and other 'anomalous primates' has found most samples are hair from other mammals.

Impolite planet: Kiwi astronomers played a key role in finding a planet that ignores one of the stars in its two-star system.

Reflections on Science:

Patience in research: Writing for Idealog, Profs John Boys and Grant Covic discuss the journey of commercialising their energy transfer research.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:

Where your imagination lives - Lynley Hargreaves picks the brain of Donna Rose Addis regarding her Marsden funded memory research.

Infrequently Asked Questions

'Why not just ban it?' - With view to getting NZ smoke free by 2025, Prof Richard Edwards looks at the possibility of ending tobacco sales altogether.

Public Health Expert

Robots and the elderly - High tech home care for old-timers could be closer than you think, writes futurist Robert Hickson.


Research highlights

Some of the research papers making headlines this week.

Our aversion to alone time: We humans really don't like being alone with our thoughts, according to a new study. The researchers show that most people find it difficult to sit alone in a room with nothing to do but think for just six to fifteen minutes, and that some people -- mostly males -- would even prefer to give themselves unpleasant electric shocks (similar to static shocks) rather than complete this task.


Bioprinted transplants closer: Researchers have made a giant leap towards the goal of 'bio-printing' transplantable tissues and organs for people affected by major diseases and trauma injuries, a new study reports. Australian and US scientists have bio-printed artificial vascular networks mimicking the body's circulatory system that are necessary for growing large complex tissues.

Lab on a Chip

Why fish hearts can't handle the heat: An increased rate of heart failure in fish may occur due to warmer water temperatures brought on by climate change, according to University of Auckland researchers. Mitochondria, the power units residing within all heart cells, begin to fail in fish - particularly tropical ones - when they are made to live in higher temperatures.

Journal of Experimental Biology

Going with your gut on insulin production: By switching off a single gene, US scientists have converted human gastrointestinal cells into insulin-producing cells, demonstrating -- in principle -- that a drug could retrain cells inside a person's GI tract to produce insulin. The finding raises the possibility that cells lost in type 1 diabetes may be more easily replaced through the 're-education' of existing cells than through the transplantation of embryonic or adult stem cell derived cells.

Nature Communications

Lambs experience life-long impact of docking: An individual's experiences during early life may profoundly shape its later behaviour and, in some cases, that of its offspring. UK researchers found that lambs tail-docked or given a simulated mild infection, showed more pain-related behaviour when giving birth to their first lambs than did females who had not had these experiences. Furthermore their offspring seemed less sensitive to pain, highlighting the long-term, trans-generational impacts of early experiences.

Biology Letters

Upcoming sci-tech events

For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.

New Zealand International Science Festival - International and local guests, presentations and events -5 - 13 July, Dunedin.

Is the present the key to the past? Lessons from Antarctica and the Southern Alps - The Inaugural Professorial Lecture of Sean Fitzsimons (Otago) - 8 July, Dunedin.

Cancer: Divide and Conquer - University of Otago Winter Lecture with Prof Parry Guilford - 9 July, Wellington; 10 July, Auckland

The Demise of New Zealand's Freshwaters: Politics and Science - Royal Society of New Zealand 2014 Charles Fleming Lecture with Dr Mike Joy - 9 July, Wellington; 10 July, Nelson.

Absolutely Positively Science - Conference of the Association for Women in the Sciences (AWIS) - 9-11 July, Wellington.

Australasian Structural Engineering Conference - 9-11 July, Auckland.

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