Rat poop, bug bits, mice hair: How many ‘unavoidable defects’ are in peanut butter and other foods you eat? | CNN



CNN
 — 

Brace yourselves, America: Many of your favorite foods may contain bits and pieces of creatures that you probably didn’t know were there.

How about some mice dung in your coffee? Maggots in your pizza sauce? Bug fragments and rat hair in your peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

Oh, and so sorry, chocolate lovers. That dark, delicious bar you devoured might contain 30 or more insect parts and a sprinkling of rodent hair.

Called “food defects,” these dismembered creatures and their excrement are the unfortunate byproduct of growing and harvesting food.

“It is economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects,” the US Food and Drug Administration said.

So while there’s no way to get rid of all the creatures that might hitch a ride along the food processing chain, the FDA has established standards to keep food defects to a minimum.

Let’s go through a typical day of meals to see what else you’re not aware that you’re eating.

The coffee beans you grind for breakfast are allowed by the FDA to have an average of 10 milligrams or more animal poop per pound. As much as 4% to 6% of beans by count are also allowed to be insect-infested or moldy.

As you sprinkle black pepper on your morning eggs, try not to think about the fact you may be eating more than 40 insect fragments with every teaspoon, along with a smidgen of rodent hair.

Did you have fruit for breakfast? Common fruit flies can catch a ride anywhere from field to harvest to grocery store, getting trapped by processors or freezing in refrigerated delivery trucks and ending up in your home.

Let’s say you packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for everyone’s lunch. Good choice!

Peanut butter is one of the most controlled foods in the FDA list; an average of one or more rodent hairs and 30 (or so) insect fragments are allowed for every 100 grams, which is 3.5 ounces.

The typical serving size for peanut butter is 2 tablespoons (unless you slather). That means each 2 tablespoon-peanut butter sandwich would only have about eight insect fragments and a teensy bit of rodent filth. (“Filth” is what the FDA calls these insect and rodent food defects.)

Unfortunately, jelly and jam are not as controlled. Apple butter can contain an average of four or more rodent hairs for every 3.5 ounces (100 grams) and about five whole insects. Oh, and that isn’t counting the unknown numbers of teensy mites, aphids and thrips.

Apple butter can also contain up to 12% mold, which is better than cherry jam, which can be 30% moldy, or black currant jam, which can be 75% moldy.

Did you pack some of the kid-size boxes of raisins for your child’s midafternoon snack?

Golden raisins are allowed to contain 35 fruit fly eggs as well as 10 or more whole insects (or their equivalent heads and legs) for every 8 ounces. Kid-size containers of raisins are an ounce each. That’s more than four eggs and a whole insect in each box.

Any Bloody Mary fans? The tomato juice in that 14-ounce Bloody Mary could contain up to four maggots and 20 or more fruit fly eggs.

And if you’re having a fruity cocktail, just be aware that the canned citrus juices that many bars use can legally have five or more fruit fly eggs or other fly eggs per cup (a little less than 250 milliliters). Or that cup of juice could contain one or more maggots. Apricot, peach and pear nectars are allowed to contain up to 12% moldy fruit.

Oh, gosh, the possibilities are endless! Did you know there can be 450 insect parts and nine rodent hairs in every 16-ounce box of spaghetti?

Canned tomatoes, tomato paste and sauces such as pizza sauce are a bit less contaminated than the tomato juice in your cocktail. The FDA only allows about two maggots in a 16-ounce can.

Adding mushrooms to your spaghetti sauce or pizza? For every 4-ounce can of mushrooms there can be an average of 20 or more maggots of any size.

The canned sweet corn we love is allowed to have two or more larvae of the corn ear worm, along with larvae fragments and the skins the worms discard as they grow.

For every ¼ cup of cornmeal, the FDA allows an average of one or more whole insects, two or more rodent hairs and 50 or more insect fragments, or one or more fragments of rodent dung.

Asparagus can contain 40 or more scary-looking but teensy thrips for every ¼ pound. If those aren’t around, FDA inspectors look for beetle eggs, entire insects or heads and body parts.

Frozen or canned spinach is allowed to have an average of 50 aphids, thrips and mites. If those are missing, the FDA allows larvae of spinach worms or eight whole leaf miner bugs.

Dismembered insects can be found in many of our favorite spices as well. Crushed oregano, for example, can contain 300 or more insect bits and about two rodent hairs for every 10 grams. To put that in context, a family-size bottle of oregano is about 18 ounces or 510 grams.

Paprika can have up to 20% mold, about 75 insect parts and 11 rodent hairs for every 25 grams (just under an ounce). A typical spice jar holds about 2 to 3 ounces.

By now you must be asking: Just how do they count those tiny insect heads and pieces of rodent dung?

“Food manufacturers have quality assurance employees who are constantly taking samples of their packaged, finished product to be sure they’re not putting anything out that is against the rules,” said food safety specialist Ben Chapman, a professor in agricultural and human sciences at North Carolina State University.

Sometimes they do it by hand, Chapman said. “They take 10 bags out of a weeklong production and try to shake out what might be in here,” he said. “Do we have particularly high insect parts or was it a particularly buggy time of year when the food was harvested? And they make sure they are below those FDA thresholds.”

What happens if it was a buggy week and lots of insects decided to sacrifice themselves? Can they get all those eggs, legs and larvae out?

“They really can’t,” Chapman said. But they can take the food and send it to a process called “rework.”

“Say I’ve got a whole bunch of buggy fresh cranberries that I can’t put in a bag and sell,” Chapman said. “I might send those to a cranberry canning operation where they can boil them and then skim those insect parts off the top and put them into a can.”

That’s gross. Will I ever eat any of these foods again?

“Look, this is all a very, very, very low-risk situation,” Chapman said. “I look at it as a yuck factor versus a risk factor. Insect parts are gross, but they don’t lead to foodborne illnesses.”

Much more dangerous, Chapman points out, is the potential for stone, metal, plastic or glass parts to come along with harvested food as it enters the processing system. All foods are subjected to X-rays and metal detectors, Chapman said, because when those slip through, people can actually be hurt.

Also much more dangerous are foodborne illnesses such as salmonella, listeria and E. coli, which can severely sicken and even kill.

“Cross-contamination from raw food, undercooking food, hand-washing and spreading germs from raw food, those are the things that contribute to the more than 48 million cases of foodborne illness we have every year in the US,” Chapman said.

Well, put that way, I guess my disgust over that rodent poop in my coffee seems overblown.

Maybe.

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Knowledge gaps for perishable liquid food packs threaten Green Deal

Professor Fredrik Nilsson, Packaging Logistics, Faculty of Engineering, Lund University

Policymakers are currently deliberating on packaging reuse targets in the proposed EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR). But do they have the necessary evidence to make those decisions for all packaged products? A systematic review of 159 relevant scientific studies on packaging alternatives for perishable liquid foods[1] — milk, juices, nectars and plant-based drinks — suggests there is a clear gap in holistic impact assessment knowledge.

Packaging of perishable liquid foods exists in various forms such as aseptic paper-based beverage cartons or non-aseptic solutions such as plastic or glass bottles. Each packaging solution has an impact on the quality, safety and shelf life of the food it contains. In assessing packaging solutions, efforts should be made to understand the wider context of reuse targets for perishable liquid foods, with consideration for packaging types, food security, food safety, food waste and environmental impacts.

In both research and policy contexts, packaging is still often considered separately from its contents in impact assessments.

However, in both research and policy contexts, packaging is still often considered separately from its contents in impact assessments, despite an existing body of knowledge and evidence showing that food and its packaging should be treated as an integrated unit.

Consequently, policymakers served only with evidence of packaging impacts could be misled and make inaccurate decisions when discussing the measures included in the proposed EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR). This risks undermining the EU’s Green Deal ambitions.

The importance of the analysis

One of the primary objectives of the proposed PPWR is to ensure that “all packaging in the EU is reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030”, in line with the EU Green Deal and the EU Circular Economy Action Plan. Setting reusable packaging targets was always likely to spark a robust debate with the food industry. The European food system uses a large amount of packaging and the use of single-use packaging in particular has grown significantly in the past decades. For perishable liquid foods, producers today prefer recyclable single-use packaging — such as aseptic beverage cartons — for the sale of 75 percent of milk, 59 percent of juices and a major share of plant-based drinks in the EU[2].

We undertook a comprehensive and systematic analysis of all identifiable studies on single-use versus reusable packaging for perishable liquid foods.

With a specific focus on the 154 billion liters of perishable liquid foods produced in the EU each year[3], a more fundamental question occurred to the Packaging Logistics division in the Faculty of Engineering at Lund University. We wondered if a sufficient body of evidence existed to help policymakers make packaging reuse decisions, so we undertook a comprehensive and systematic analysis of all identifiable studies on single-use versus reusable packaging for perishable liquid foods.

The scale of the knowledge gap that we uncovered was eye-opening.

Findings from the study

Based on an analysis of 159 identified scientific papers, we came to three main conclusions.

First, the research and knowledge of food waste for single-use packaging compared to reusable packaging alternatives for perishable liquid foods was clearly insufficient. No studies were found that evaluated reusable packaging for such foods in relation to food waste, consequently no studies were found comparing single-use packaging with reusable packaging in this regard. A few studies were found that evaluated different single-use packaging alternatives in terms of the packaging and the liquid food being contained, finding that multilayer carton packages had the lowest environmental impact. Most environmentally-focused studies on food packaging did not consider the food saved or wasted.

The research and knowledge of food waste for single-use packaging compared to reusable packaging alternatives for perishable liquid foods was clearly insufficient.

Second, there were few studies comparing reusable and single-use packaging for perishable liquid foods in terms of food safety and quality. Instead, the majority of sampled papers simply provided insights and evidence for critical factors to be considered in food production and supply chain handling to keep liquid foods safe and of sufficient quality. This analysis surfaced several challenges related to reusable packaging, some related to food safety and others to quality limitations. For example, some studies pointed out quality-related challenges from plastic refillable bottles, such as the absorption of chemicals from previous use.

Finally, while there were many papers addressing shelf life as a critical aspect for perishable liquid foods — and many that empirically provided evidence of lower food waste in retail and at the consumer stage when shelf life is prolonged — there were still sizable knowledge gaps. No studies were found that compared the shelf life of single-use versus reusable packaging for perishable liquid foods. None were found that evaluated the shelf life of reusable packaging for such foods in relation to food waste, and none were found that clarified what optimal shelf life is for different products.

In our view, the key knowledge gaps at this time are: evidence of food waste impacts for reusable alternatives, so that a comparison with recyclable single-use packaging is possible; comparative studies on food safety and quality impacts through using single-use and reusable alternatives; shelf life comparisons; impact assessments that also take into account climate and land-use impacts; and, most importantly, food packaging studies that take into account the product that the packaging contains and protects. 

Key knowledge gaps need to be addressed

Policymakers should be insisting on accessing a more holistic knowledge base built on assessment of impact, before they finalize reusable packaging targets in the PPWR. 

The evidence we have today suggests that greater food safety, food security and food quality could be achieved by increasing the use of recyclable single-use packaging.

A more holistic perspective is crucial to help policymakers avoid measures that might miss higher environmental gains, compromise consumers’ health and wellbeing, and reconfigure the packaging industry. Further knowledge might indicate that reusable packaging for perishable liquid foods is feasible under specific circumstances. However, the evidence we have today suggests that greater food safety, food security and food quality could be achieved by increasing the use of recyclable single-use packaging. Support for that choice is already demonstrated today through the packaging chosen by the majority of European milk, juice and plant-based drink producers.


[1] Perishable foods are defined in EU legislation under Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 as foods which, from a microbiological point of view, are highly perishable and are therefore likely after a short period to constitute an immediate danger to human health.

[2] AIJN, Liquid Fruit Market Report, 2018, p.7 https://aijn.eu/files/attachments/.598/2018_Liquid_Fruit_Market_Report.pdf

[3] Key figures on the European food chain, Eurostat, 2021



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‘We never want to have this happen again,’ FDA official testifies about formula shortage | CNN



CNN
 — 

In a rare moment of bipartisan agreement, lawmakers were highly critical of the US Food and Drug Administration’s handling of the infant formula shortage Thursday.

The hearing of the US House Oversight and Accountability Subcommittee on Health Care and Financial Services was one of several Congress has held to better understand what contributed to the recent formula shortage and to understand how to prevent more problems down the road.

Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Michigan, said that the FDA has not been fully forthcoming with Congress and the public.

“Why was the FDA unprepared for the crisis?” she asked in her opening statement.

She said that the agency failed to prioritize food safety. “The FDA has not taken the action needed to prevent a similar crisis from happening again.”

Rep. Katie Porter, D-California, said she agreed with McClain that another shortage could happen, “and that is a deadly serious problem.”

“There is a lot of blame to go around,” Porter added. “It’s clear with today’s witness selection that Republicans want to blame the FDA, and I’ll level with you, I think some of that blame is well-placed. We’ve had two subsequent infant formula recalls in 2023 already, and we’re still seeing that the FDA can make further improvements on internal processes, intervene in issues sooner and follow through with more inspections to prevent further contamination.”

Three major manufacturers in the US control over 90% of the formula market, and that consolidation is a “serious concern” that “contributed significantly to shortages,” according to Dr. Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, who testified Thursday.

A shortage that started in 2021 was exacerbated when the country’s largest infant formula maker, Abbott Nutrition, recalled multiple products in mid-February 2022 and had to pause production at its plant in Sturgis, Michigan, after FDA inspectors found potentially dangerous bacteria.

The plant inspection was tied to an outbreak of Cronobacter sakazakii that had sickened at least four infants and killed two, although investigations did not find a genetic link between bacteria samples from the facility and bacteria found in the water and powder used to mix the formula that the infants had consumed.

Mayne testified that it was difficult to trace the cases and determine how big of a concern the outbreak was. The bacteria is a common pathogen in the environment “but one about which we have limited information.”

The FDA has urged the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make Cronobacter infection a notifiable disease – meaning providers would be required to report cases to local or state public health officials – so public health experts would be able to more quickly determine the source of any contamination.

In addition to the bacteria, an FDA inspection of the Sturgis plant found unsanitary conditions and several violations of food safety rules.

A whistleblower had alerted the FDA to alleged safety lapses at the plant in February 2021, months before Abbott’s formula was recalled. The complaint suggested that the plant lacked proper cleaning practices and that workers falsified records and hid information from inspectors.

Like other FDA leaders who have been called before Congress, Mayne testified that she was not made aware of the complaint right away. She called it “a failure of escalation.”

“I do wish I had been made aware of this particular whistleblower complaint, but just to reiterate, the complaint was acted upon,” Mayne said. However, she noted, it was “less than ideal” how quickly there was an FDA inspection of the plant and how quickly the agency was able to act.

When the whistleblower made the complaint, there was no process within the FDA to escalate it. The process has since changed so that if a complaint meets certain criteria involving vulnerable populations, hospitalizations or deaths, leadership would be immediately informed. If a consumer complaint involves an infant death or hospitalization, it also immediately gets escalated to leadership.

To prevent future shortages, Mayne testified, it won’t just be the FDA that needs to change. The industry should do more to adopt enhanced food safety measures to “deliver the safest possible” infant formula, she said.

The agency would also like better regulations. There have been been two infant formula recalls already in 2023, and in neither case was the manufacturer required to notify the FDA that it had found contamination before the formula left the plant.

The FDA has asked formula makers to inform the agency about positive tests, but such reporting is only voluntary. If it were mandatory, the FDA could know about problems in real time and could take action.

“Our food safety experts, our compliance experts can work with the manufacturers,” Mayne said. In such a collaboration, they could quickly identify what product to focus on to prevent a shortage.

The FDA has taken recent steps to improve. In February, it announced that it is restructuring its food division to be more responsive and that it is creating an office of critical foods. The FDA is also hiring specialized infant formula inspection staff, Mayne said.

The infant formula supply is generally in good shape, she said, but there are still some distribution issues.

The in-stock rate is near 90%, even higher than pre-recall levels. But some rural areas are having a hard time getting all the formula they need.

Formula manufacturers have been producing more than is being purchased week after week to build up supply, Mayne said. The Biden administration has also worked to bring in formula from manufacturers overseas.

But another shortage is not out of the question, particularly if one of the country’s main manufacturers is taken offline for any significant amount of time.

“We never want to have this happen again,” Mayne said.

Lawmakers have proposed significant cuts, about 22%, to the FDA’s budget for 2023. Mayne said that consumers and the industry would be “adversely affected” if the cuts go through.

“Broadly, across the FDA, I can say it would be devastating,” she said, resulting in a loss of 32% of domestic inspections and 22% of foreign inspections. The cuts would also disproportionately affect its food programs, which get much of their funding from the budget, unlike divisions involving drugs that get money from user fees.

“We would be unable to do what I think American consumers expect us to do,” Mayne said.

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No silver bullet: Ensuring the right packaging solutions for Europe

When most people think of McDonald’s they likely think of quality food, good value and consistently reliable convenient service. But I hope they also think about our values.

At McDonald’s, we care deeply about our impact on the world. Our purpose is to feed and foster local communities. We are always striving to use our influence and scale to make a positive impact on the planet and in the communities we serve across Europe and globally. We are on a journey to help implement and accelerate solutions to keep waste out of nature and valuable materials in use.

Our purpose is to feed and foster local communities.

During my trip to Europe, I’ve seen some of these solutions in action. While in Brussels I had the opportunity to visit one of our restaurants at the forefront of advancing our circularity goals. McDonald’s is the first major partner of a pioneering initiative ‘The Cup Collective’. It is a great project by Stora Enso and Huhtamaki to collect cardboard beverage and ice cream cups in and around our restaurants and recycle them on an industrial scale into paper fiber. At our busy  restaurant in Brussels-North station, I saw the initiative firsthand. This is a fantastic example of several stakeholders working together to solve a problem through their expertise and innovation.

I know policymakers across the EU are trying to solve many of the greatest challenges we face today, including Europe’s growing packaging waste problem, and we at McDonald’s fully support this, as the example above demonstrates. The problem is, history itself is littered with examples of the unintended consequences of well-meaning policies and laws. I believe the current Packaging and Packaging Waste proposal by the EU is one such regulation. By focusing solely on reusable packaging, we at McDonald’s and many of our partners and competitors in the informal dining out sector believe that Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) will actually be counterproductive to the overall goals of the Green Deal. And we support the goals of the Green Deal, which is why this concerns us.

The informal eating-out sector is particularly complex and is not well understood. We feel the impact study the EU commissioned ahead of the PPWR proposal did not necessarily reflect that as much as it could have. We want such important decisions to be based on science, facts, and evidence, which is why we commissioned a report with the global management consultancy Kearney to assess environmental, economic, hygiene and affordability impacts of various packaging solutions. As a result of this, we firmly believe the proposal will be damaging not only for the environment, but also for the economy, food safety and for consumers.

Of course, the idea of reusing something over and over again as opposed to only once seems like the obvious solution — but it’s more complicated than that. For reuse models to have a positive impact on the environment, consumers need to return the reusables. A reusable cup needs to be returned and reused 50 to 100 times — whether for takeaway or dine-in — to make it environmentally preferable to a single-use paper cup.

Reusables by their very nature also need to be washed every time they’re used. For an industry like ours, serving millions of customers every day, that requires significant energy and water. Europe’s water infrastructure is already under stress, and the Kearney study shows reusable packaging requirements for dine-in restaurants would increase water use — and could require up to 4 billion liters of additional water each year. Washing also requires more energy resulting in increased greenhouse emissions. The study shows that a shift to 100 percent reusable packaging by 2030 would increase greenhouse emissions by up to 50 percent for dine-in and up to 260 percent for takeaway. They also require specialist washing to ensure they meet hygiene standards.

The study shows that a shift to 100 percent reusable packaging by 2030 would increase greenhouse emissions.

When it comes to plastics we are particularly concerned. McDonald’s has made huge progress when it comes to reducing plastic in our supply chain and restaurants. In the European Union, more than 90 percent of our packaging is locally sourced, primarily from European paper packaging suppliers. We are shifting packaging materials to more sustainable alternatives to ensure easier recovery and recycling. 92.8 percent (by weight) of McDonald’s food packaging in Europe is wood fiber and 99.4 percent of that fiber packaging comes from recycled or certified sources.

Worryingly though, the study we commissioned says that reuse models will lead to a sharp increase in plastic materials in Europe.Reuse targets proposed in the PPWR will create four times the amount of plastic packaging waste for dine-in, and 16 times for takeaway. That’s a lot more plastic instead of recyclable paper and cardboard and is the opposite of what the EU wants to achieve.

So, what should be done? Given that Kearney’s data shows recyclable, fiber-based packaging has the greater potential to benefit the environment, economy, food safety and consumers, we believe the EU should pause and conduct a full impact study before moving ahead. The European Commission’s current impact assessment lacks depth and does not consider economic and food safety aspects. Member countries should not unilaterally introduce legislation before this has been assessed to avoid fragmentation of the single market.

We believe the EU should pause and conduct a full impact study before moving ahead.

In dine in and takeaway, we are looking for equivalence of treatment between recycled and recyclable (paper based) single use packaging and reusable tableware. Any legislation should take into account the specific needs of complex business sectors, and the right packaging solutions.

A rush to a solution for a complicated situation will only make the problem worse. I hope that the report McDonald’s commissioned and launched with Kearney will stimulate the policy debate about the mix of solutions needed. Europe has a proud history of collaboration and pragmatism when it comes to solving important problems and challenges, and I am confident we can draw on that when it comes to this particular issue — because there really is no silver bullet when it comes to solving Europe’s packaging problem.

www.nosilverbullet.eu



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Should You Skip Dark Chocolate This Valentine’s Day?

Feb. 14, 2023 — Dark chocolate is rich. It’s intense. Some believe it’s an aphrodisiac. Plus, it has numerous proven health benefits. A box of smooth, luscious bonbons seems like just the thing to give your valentine. But recent headlines may have you rethinking that sweet, sexy gift. Here’s what you should know.

Toward the end of last year, Consumer Reports announced they’d tested 28 different dark chocolate bars and found lead and cadmium in every one of them. 

“I was devastated,” says Taryn FitzGerald. The Brooklyn-based artist has been enjoying dark chocolate for years and enjoys a “tiny little square” each night. “Dark chocolate is one of my passions.” 

What the Report Said

The presence of cadmium and lead in dark chocolate isn’t news. The environmental health watchdog group As You Sow sued a group of chocolate makers over it several years ago. As part of the settlement, researchers studied how heavy metals contaminate cacao beans, dark chocolate’s main ingredient. Their report came out in August of last year. It found that cadmium enters the beans from the soil where they grow, while lead contamination occurs during chocolate processing. 

Consumer Reports wanted to test the current in-store reality and provide new details.

“There are always new products or reformulation of food products,” says Jim Rogers, PhD, Consumer Reports’ director of food safety research. “We might think we know a lot about food — that may or may not be true.”

The organization tested bars from big companies like Dove, Hershey’s, and Trader Joe’s as well as smaller ones like Tony’s Chocolonely and Mast Brothers, some grown conventionally and some organic. There are no federal limits for lead and cadmium content in food, so they set their threshold at California’s maximum allowable dose level for each. 

“We use what we consider health-protective standards,” Rogers says. “We always say no level of lead is safe, right? We want that to be as close to zero as possible in all food products.”

Testing looked at how much of these metals would be found in a single, 1-ounce serving. Of the 28 bars tested, Consumer Reports found that 23 provide a potentially harmful dose of at least one. 

Eight bars had more than 100% of the allowable limit for cadmium, 10 surpassed the level for lead, and five exceeded both. Some had more than twice the maximum amount of one metal or the other. For instance, a 1-ounce square of Lindt Excellence Dark Chocolate 85% Cocoa — the bar FitzGerald ate every night for years — contains 166% of the allowable limit for lead and 80% for cadmium.

Consumer Reports‘ “safer choices” list includes just five bars with levels below 100% of both metals. None were completely lead-free or cadmium-free.

The National Confectioners Association issued a statement in response to the findings: “The products cited in this study are in compliance with strict quality and safety requirements, and the levels provided to us by Consumer Reports testing are well under the limits established by our settlement.”

The Health Risks of Heavy Metals

Both cadmium and lead are naturally occurring elements found in soil and elsewhere in the environment. But just because they’re natural doesn’t mean they’re good for you.

“Some heavy metals really don’t have a function in your body. They don’t need to be there, and some of them accumulate,” says Katarzyna Kordas, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University at Buffalo School of Public Health. “These metals are not a joke. We want to have as little of them as possible in our environment, which includes food.”

Once absorbed, cadmium stays in your body for decades. It’s known to cause cancer, and it can cause kidney damage and weaken your bones. Among other things, lead targets your respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts, your nervous system, and your kidneys. 

The accumulation of these metals in your body is what makes them so dangerous. And dark chocolate is far from the only source we eat. The FDA’s Total Diet Study monitors both nutrients and contaminants in thousands of foods. Researchers found cadmium in 61% of the samples tested and lead in 15%. 

Because cadmium is in soil, some of the highest food concentrations appear in plants, like spinach and root vegetables. Lead tends to enter the food chain during manufacturing, so it shows up in things like baby food and sandwich cookies. It’s virtually impossible to avoid these two metals completely.

“I suspect all foods have this stuff,” says Marion Nestle, PhD, who studies and writes about food systems. “When they do test, they find heavy metals in astonishing proportions. It’s like with pesticides — everyone has them.” 

The challenge, then, is to limit your exposure. 

One obvious solution would be to give up dark chocolate (and spinach) entirely, no matter how many other benefits it offers. But nobody’s saying you should cut out all food known to have cadmium or lead. That might backfire.

“The risk of eliminating a food that’s high in nutrients,” Kordas says, “could potentially be as bad as eating something that has some contaminants.”

Chocolatiers Can Reduce Heavy Metals

Because cadmium and lead get into chocolate in different ways, no single solution will address the problem. Instead, experts recommend a handful of steps cacao growers and chocolate makers can take, both right away and in the future.

To reduce cadmium, which cacao plants absorb from the soil:

  • Purchase beans with lower levels. Soil contamination varies by region and even by farm, with some Latin American countries having the highest levels and African countries the lowest. Chocolate makers can choose to buy beans from areas with less contamination.
  • Blend bean harvests. If a chocolatier combines cacao from different regions with varying levels of contamination, it moderates the overall levels. Some chocolate makers already do this. One of them, Tazo, has a bar on Consumer Reports‘ “safer choices” list.
  • Add balancing substances to the soil. If growers change the makeup of the soil itself, that can make it harder for plants to absorb cadmium.

For lead, which can contaminate cacao beans at several points during harvesting and manufacturing, the changes may be easier to undertake. Some could show results within a year of implementation. They focus on reducing the beans’ exposure to lead along the journey from soil to store.

How to Choose Safer Chocolate

It should be obvious by now: You don’t have to remove dark chocolate from your life, though you may choose to. Every person’s risk is different, based on your health history and what else you eat. Experts do, however, recommend that pregnant people and children avoid dark chocolate.

Here’s what you can do to lower your exposure:

  • Eat less chocolate. If you don’t want to give it up, just don’t make dark chocolate an everyday thing. “We think that our findings and other findings are important enough to make recommendations of reducing your consumption of dark chocolates,” Rogers says. 
  • Variety, variety, variety. Just as manufacturers can reduce risk by mixing bean harvests, you can protect yourself by eating different brands and types of chocolate. Dark chocolates with lower percentages of cacao, in the 65%-70% range, seem to have lower levels of cadmium and lead. Milk chocolate uses even less cacao, which means lower amounts of heavy metals. “Never eat the same chocolate over and over,” Nestle says. “This is true for every food — the more variation you have in what you eat, the more likely you are to get the nutrients you need and avoid what’s not good for you.”
  • Boost your iron and calcium. Your body absorbs lead in the same way it does iron and calcium, two metals you actually need. If your diet doesn’t provide enough of them, it can let more lead enter your system. “One reason the CDC recommends a diet rich in calcium and iron is that it’s one way to prevent the accumulation of lead in children,” Kordas says.
  • Become an informed consumer. If you’re concerned about your risk, Rogers suggests reaching out to your favorite chocolate makers. Ask what their own testing shows. “Good companies will know what’s going on with their product,” he says. 

FitzGerald hasn’t eaten her favorite chocolate since Consumer Reports‘ research came out. She’s glad to know she might not have to stop enjoying her nightly treat altogether. 

“I’m going to start exploring other brands,” she says, “and also, just see how I do without chocolate.”

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FDA proposes new levels for lead in baby food, but critics say more action is needed | CNN



CNN
 — 

The allowable levels of lead in certain baby and toddler foods should be set at 20 parts per billion or less, according to new draft guidance issued Tuesday by the US Food and Drug Administration.

“For babies and young children who eat the foods covered in today’s draft guidance, the FDA estimates that these action levels could result in as much as a 24-27% reduction in exposure to lead from these foods,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf in a statement.

The

Baby foods covered by the new proposal – which is seeking public comment – include processed baby foods sold in boxes, jars, pouches and tubs for babies and young children younger than 2 years old, the agency said.

While any action on the part of the FDA is welcome, the suggested levels of lead are not low enough to move the needle, said Jane Houlihan, the national director of science and health for Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a coalition of advocates committed to reducing babies’ exposures to neurotoxic chemicals.

“Nearly all baby foods on the market already comply with what they have proposed,” said Houlihan, who authored a 2019 report that found dangerous levels of lead and other heavy metals in 95% of manufactured baby food.

That report triggered a 2021 congressional investigation, which found leading baby food manufacturers knowingly sold products with high levels of toxic metals.

“The FDA hasn’t done enough with these proposed lead limits to protect babies and young children from lead’s harmful effects. There is no known safe level of lead exposure, and children are particularly vulnerable,” Houlihan said.

The director of food policy for Consumers Reports, Brian Ronholm, also expressed concerns. In 2018, Consumer Reports analyzed 50 baby foods and found “concerning” levels of lead and other heavy metals. In fact, “15 of them would pose a risk to a child who ate one serving or less per day,” according to Consumer Reports.

“The FDA should be encouraging industry to work harder to reduce hazardous lead and other heavy metals in baby food given how vulnerable young children are to toxic exposure,” Ronholm said in a statement.

Exposure to toxic heavy metals can be harmful to the developing brain of infants and children. “It’s been linked with problems with learning, cognition, and behavior,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury are in the World Health Organization’s top 10 chemicals of concern for infants and children.

As natural elements, they are in the soil in which crops are grown and thus can’t be avoided. Some crop fields and regions, however, contain more toxic levels than others, partly due to the overuse of metal-containing pesticides and ongoing industrial pollution.

The new FDA guidance suggests manufactured baby food custards, fruits, food mixtures — including grain and meat-based blends — puddings, vegetables, yogurts, and single-ingredient meats and vegetables contain no more than 10 parts per billion of lead.

The exception to that limit is for single-ingredient root vegetables, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, which should contain no more than 20 parts per billion, according to the new guidance.

Dry cereals marketed to babies and toddlers should also not contain more than 20 parts per billion of lead, the new FDA guidance said.

However, the FDA didn’t propose any lead limit for cereal puffs and teething biscuits, Houlihan said, even though the products account for “7 of the 10 highest lead levels we’ve found in over 1,000 baby food tests we have assessed.”

The limit set for root vegetables will be helpful, Houlihan added. Because they grow underground, root vegetables can easily absorb heavy metals. For example, sweet potatoes often exceed the 20 parts per billion limit the FDA has proposed, she said.

Prior to this announcement, the FDA had only set limits for heavy metals in one baby food — infant rice cereal, Houlihan said. In 2021, the agency set a limit of 100 parts per billion for arsenic, which has been linked to adverse pregnancy outcomes and neurodevelopmental toxicity.

There is much more that can be done, according to Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental health organization.

“We can change where we farm and how we farm to reduce toxic metals absorbed by plants,” Faber said. “We also urge baby food manufacturers to conduct continuous testing of heavy metals in all their products and make all testing results publicly available.”

Companies can require suppliers and growers to test the soil and the foods they produce, and choose to purchase from those with the lowest levels of heavy metals, Houlihan added.

“Growers can use soil additives, different growing methods and crop varieties known to reduce lead in their products,” she said.

What can parents do to lessen their child’s exposure to toxic metals? Unfortunately, buying organic or making baby food at home isn’t going to solve the problem, as the produce purchased at the grocery store can also contain high levels of contaminants, experts say.

A 2022 report by Healthy Babies, Bright Futures found lead in 80% of homemade purees or store-bought family foods. Arsenic was found in 72% of family food either purchased or prepared at home.

The best way to lessen your child’s exposure to heavy metals, experts say, is to vary the foods eaten on a daily basis and choose mostly from foods which are likely to have the least contamination. Healthy Babies, Bright Futures created a chart of less to most contaminated foods based on their testing.

Fresh bananas, with heavy metal levels of 1.8 parts per billion, were the least contaminated of foods tested for the report. After bananas, the least contaminated foods were grits, manufactured baby food meats, butternut squash, lamb, apples, pork, eggs, oranges and watermelon, in that order.

Other foods with lower levels of contamination included green beans, peas, cucumbers and soft or pureed home-cooked meats, the report found.

The most heavily contaminated foods eaten by babies were all rice-based, the report said. Rice cakes, rice puffs, crisped rice cereals and brown rice with no cooking water removed were heavily contaminated with inorganic arsenic, the more toxic form of arsenic.

After rice-based foods, the analysis found the highest levels of heavy metals in raisins, non-rice teething crackers, granola bars with raisins and oat-ring cereals. But those were not the only foods of concern: Dried fruit, grape juice, arrowroot teething crackers and sunflower seed butter all contained high amounts of at least one toxic metal, according to the report.

While buying organic cannot reduce the levels of heavy metals in infant food, it can help avoid other toxins such as herbicides and pesticides, Dr. Leonardo Trasande, director of environmental pediatrics at NYU Langone Health told CNN previously.

“There are other benefits to eating organic food, including a reduction in synthetic pesticides that are known to be as bad for babies, if not even more problematic,” Trasande said.

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