Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mercury contamination widespread in US Food Supply

Rather than simply presenting this story and ranting about it, I want to use this as an opportunity to demonstrate my way of critical thinking. I think that the way the news is reported does a tremendous disservice to the American public. I further believe that a large segment of the American population is losing, or has lost, their ability to think at any depth about the implications of the stories in the press. Read this article, then meet me below for commentary.

Studies Find Mercury in Much U.S. Corn Syrup

Corn Syrup Industry Attacks Findings, but Researchers Stick by Studies



Many common foods made using commercial high fructose corn syrup contain mercury as well, researchers reported on Tuesday, while another study suggested the corn syrup itself is contaminated.

Food processors and the corn syrup industry group attacked the findings as flawed and outdated, but the researchers said it was important for people to know about any potential sources of the toxic metal in their food.

In one study, published in the journal Environmental Health, former Food and Drug Administration scientist Renee Dufault and colleagues tested 20 samples of high fructose corn syrup and found detectable mercury in nine of the 20 samples.

Dufault said in a statement that she told the FDA about her findings but the agency did not follow up.

Dr. David Wallinga, a food safety researcher and activist at the nonprofit Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, said he followed up on the report to find mercury in actual food.

"When I learned of that work, I said that is interesting but we don't just go out and eat a spoonful of high fructose corn syrup," Wallinga said in a telephone interview.

"We went and looked at supermarket samples where high fructose corn syrup was the first or second ingredient on the label," he said. These 55 different foods included barbecue sauce, jam, yogurt and chocolate syrup.

"We found about one out of three had mercury above the detection limit," Wallinga said.

The Corn Refiners Association challenged the findings.

"This study appears to be based on outdated information of dubious significance," the group said in a statement.

Wallinga and colleagues said they believed the mercury got into the food during manufacture, at plants that use mercury-grade caustic soda produced in industrial chlorine plants, although his team was unable to show this.

"Our industry has used mercury-free versions of the two reagents mentioned in the study, hydrochloric acid and caustic soda, for several years," Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, said in a statement.

Wallinga said the studies were based on samples taken in 2005, the most recent available.

Many studies have shown that fish can be high in mercury. Wallinga said consumers should know about other potential sources so they can limit how much they eat. "The best mercury exposure is no exposure at all," he said.

"Even at low levels methylmercury can harm the developing brain. The last thing we should intentionally do is add to it," Wallinga added.

He said his team did not test foods that did not contain corn syrup to see if they were also high in mercury.

OK, so pretty scary stuff, but if you read the article uncritically, you might be left with the impression that there is a dispute about whether mercury is in high fructose corn syrup (and the foods that contain HFCS) or not. But a critical reader notices what the corn industry actually said, which is "This study appears to be based on outdated information of dubious significance." That's not a denial. If there really wasn't mercury in the syrup, then they would say something along the lines of "We have the highest processing standards and a rigorous quality control process. We are confident that there is no mercury in our products. However, to be absolutely certain, and in the interests of American consumers, we are submitting samples to a third-party lab for testing as well as inviting inspectors into our plants to monitor our processes and submit ideas for improvements." Ah, but that's not what they said, is it? Instead, they admitted that at one time their products contained mercury, and argued that even if they still do contain mercury, it's probably not really that significant anyway.

The next thing to do is to thing about the motivations of the people cited in the article. Who has a motivation to mislead? The scientists are doing science, and publishing their research. They might have an incentive to publish something like this which could be sensationalized, if it draws more attention to them. It could lead to a book deal, talk-show appearances, etc...

Alternatively, the corn industry also has a motivation to mislead. HFCS is in practically everything you purchase. If news that it was contaminated with mercury became widespread, then people may not purchase as much of their product, or lawsuits seeking damages may be initiated. Millions of dollars in lost sales, punitive damages, and impaired goodwill are not unforeseeable. So, if they can mislead people into thinking the studies are no good, that might just nip the problem in the bud.

So which is more likely to be misleading you? I don't know, but I suspect that it's the corn industry, especially in light of their non-denial statement. However, it could be both of them. And if you are reading an article that quotes a politician, all bets are off.

So there you have it, you're probably injesting a significantly higher amount of mercury than you were expecting. Welcome to the dysfunctional American food supply, would you like some salmonella peanut butter with that?

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