Monday, June 3, 2013

Contaminated Air, Water and Soil Contaminate Food Grown in China threatens US Consumers

As reported in the Wall Street Journal over 40% of rice tested in local markets in Guangzhou, China earlier this year contained levels of cadmium exceeding local regulations. Guangzhou is southern China's largest city. The Wall Street Journal reported that the contaminated rice samples were found to have 0.21 milligram to 0.4 milligram of cadmium in each kilogram of rice. The Chinese government allows a maximum 0.2 mg of cadmium in each kilogram of rice. Cadmium appears in small quantities in air, water, and soil. Burning of household waste, industrial waste, coal or oil can release cadmium into the air. Cadmium also can be released from car exhaust, industrial activities like metal processing, battery and paint manufacturing, and waste disposal. Once cadmium is in the air, it spreads with the wind and settles onto the ground or surface water as dust. Since cadmium is a metal, it does not break down and can accumulate over time.

Breathing low levels of cadmium over many years can result in a buildup of cadmium in the kidneys and may cause kidney damage and fragile bones. If you eat food or drink water that contains large amounts of cadmium, stomach irritation, vomiting, and diarrhea may result, but damage from low levels of cadmium exposure may build unnoticed. Cadmium is a carcinogen and heavy metal element. Cadmium is commonly present in industrial waste, but is also a contaminant in fertilizer manufactured from phosphorus sources high in cadmium and then over applied contaminating the soil. The quantity of cadmium contained in a phosphate fertilizer depends on the source of the rock from which it was made. This content varies from almost zero to over 300 mg of Cadmium per kilogram of fertilizer.

High cadmium levels have been found in soil in many different Chinese regions. China's soils are reported to be contaminated not only with cadmium, but also high levels of lead and arsenic. Cadmium is frequently found in leafy vegetables such as spinach and other leafy vegetables grown in polluted conditions. For cadmium to be found in rice grains, the soil in which it was grown must have been especially highly polluted, according to scientists. This sort of contamination is more likely to occur from irrigation with contaminated waste water and/or over application of severely contaminated fertilizer.

China barely grows enough rice to feed their own nation, so it is unlikely that anyone outside of their nation will be exposed to cadmium contaminated rice, but there are many other foods that China does export to us. Last year the United States imported 4.1 billion pound of food from China. From the Testimony by Patty Lovera, the assistant director of Food and Water Watch, before the House Committee hearing on “The Threat of China’s Unsafe Consumables” we see how widely food from China permeates our own food supply and is impacted by the growing food safety problem in China that includes economically motivated adulteration using hazardous chemicals and fraudulent representations of products being organic.

In 2011: The United States imported 382.2 million pounds of tilapia from China representing over 80% of U.S. consumption. In addition, the United States imported 367 million gallons of apple juice from China, almost half the apple juice consumed that year in the United States. The 70.7 million pounds of cod imported from China were just over half of U.S. consumption. The 217.5 million pounds of imported garlic was 31 % of U.S. consumption. The 39.3 million pounds of frozen spinach represented 11 % of U.S. consumption.

Chinese exports include processed foods and food ingredients, products which most consumers purchase without considering where they came from and after melamine in animal feed and milk tainted milk products sickened and killed pets and children we should think carefully about the ingredients in processed food. China is a leading supplier to the United States of ingredients like xylitol, used as a sweetener in candy, and sorbic acid which is used as a preservative. China supplies around 85 % of U.S imports of artificial vanilla, as well as many vitamins that are frequently added to food products, like folic acid and thiamine.

This is an opportunity to rethink your food philosophy and rethink organic to increase your food safety. The USDA organic label means that the food was produced using organic methods sanctioned by the USDA. Verification of imported food is not performed by the USDA. Under the standards organic food is food grown, raised and processed without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and antibiotics may not be used in raising organic foods, in addition, the use of irradiation, biotechnology, and sewer-sludge fertilizer is also banned. However, during a spot test (not all food is tested) organic produce imported from China has been found to be high in synthetic pesticide residue.

To eat safely avoid as much as possible processed food. The origin of ingredients in processed food does not have to be listed on the label this is true for organic processed food. So try to buy on whole foods. In the past I have bought organic where I thought it mattered to protecting my family from exposure to chemicals. Like strawberries, lettuce, apples, vegetables especially root vegetables where the outside of the fruit and vegetable is eaten, but it is very important that the food is grown in uncontaminated soil and that the Organic certification can be trusted. I trust the United States certification and a few others and have expanded my buying to local conservation farmers that use pesticides in limited quantities. Food is not just about organic, conventional, price or marketing. You need to know the sources of your food and ingredients. Through my volunteer work I have gotten to know several local farmers and I trust them.

For the safest and healthiest diet I try to buy only American grown produce, vegetables, herbs, beans and grains (though occasionally I do buy a couple of bananas and pineapples). In terms of meat, I purchase organic, grass fed and pastured beef, pork, lamb and free range chicken from only U.S. sources and preferably at a farm with a buying club and local drop off point. We only eat wild caught fish and the list of types and sources is growing shorter. I started buying grass fed beef back in the day when I was doing environmental evaluations of farms, dairies and concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs). I will not go into the highly gross details of that work; however, my concerns for the animal welfare, mad cow disease, and environmental impact of CAFOs pushed me to buy my meat from sustainable farms that pasture raise their meat. In addition grass fed beef (and other animals) is lower in saturated fat and better for you. This was confirmed by Marion Nestle, author of “What to Eat” and Professor of nutrition at NYU School of Public Health. I asked her at a lecture I attended and she said that grass fed beef was as low in saturated fat as chicken.

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