Staying safe: navigating nonstick and other potential risks.
Supermarket Chains: How Clean?
Local health departments inspect supermarkets, just like they do restaurants. But good luck trying to find the results.
"There are a lot of really clean stores in this country," NBC consumer reporter Lea Thompson writes on the "Inside Dateline" blog (msnbc.msn.com /id/11549598/). "But it is hard to know sometimes which are clean and which aren't."
Earlier this year, Thompson hosted a segment on the newsmagazine show "Dateline" that rated the top ten U.S. supermarket chains based on their food-safety records. "We believe this is the largest survey of grocery store cleanliness and safety ever done," she notes.
"Dateline" examined more than 4,500 health inspection reports from 2004, covering 100 stores from each of the top 10 chains.
Producers calculated the average number of critical violations that inspectors found for every 10 visits. A critical violation is one that could make people sick--storing toxic chemicals too close to food or not keeping hot or cold food at the proper temperature, for example.
Here, from best to worst, is what "Dateline" uncovered:
* Food Lion (based in North Carolina) had the best record. The chain averaged eight critical violations for every 10 inspection visits, or less than one per visit.
* Save-a-Lot (based in St. Louis) and Wal-Mart averaged nine critical violations. Wal-Mart's biggest problem was keeping food at the right temperature. Save-a-Lot's Achilles' heel was expired products and damaged packaging.
* Costco and Wal-Mart's Sam's Club averaged 12 violations each. Sam's Club was primarily cited for inadequate hand washing facilities for its employees (some of its sinks were broken; others had no soap). The most common violation at Costco: temperature. The chain received 56 citations for not storing cold food cold enough or hot food hot enough.
* Winn-Dixie (based in Florida) averaged 14 critical violations per 10 inspections. The chain received most of its citations for storing toxic chemicals, like cleaning supplies, too close to food.
* Kroger (based in Cincinnati) averaged 17 critical violations. On 91 different occasions, Kroger stores were cited for having improperly cleaned food equipment--things like dirty meat slicers.
* Publix (based in Florida) and Albertsons (based in Idaho) averaged 23 critical violations, most frequently for storing toxic chemicals improperly. And when a
"Dateline" crew visited two Publix stores in Florida, it found flies crawling over the fruits and vegetables in both.
* Safeway (based in California) averaged 25 critical violations for every 10 visits by inspectors. That's two to three times as many as Food Lion, Wal-Mart, Save-a-Lot, Costco, and Sam's Club. The chain was most frequently cited for temperature violations. And a "Dateline" crew found a Safeway in Washington, D.C., that didn't keep its fried chicken hot enough to keep bacteria from growing.
"Frankly, I was surprised the inspection reports showed so many temperature citations," NBC's Thompson wrote in her blog. She also didn't expect to find so many expired products on the shelves.
Among other problems: on a tour of 18 supermarkets with poor records for food handling, Thompson and her TV crew found mousetraps, blood spilled in a meat tray, dead flies in puddles of orange juice, and an employee washroom where the hot water never got above 70 degrees.
What should consumers do if they spot what seems to be an unsafe food-handling practice at their local supermarket?
"I think they should report it immediately to the manager," independent food-safety expert Jeff Nelken told "Dateline." Nelken trains restaurants, hotels, food manufacturers, and food distributors in how to handle food properly.
If you don't get a response, "I wouldn't hesitate to call the health department," he added. "I think it's customers' responsibility to vote with their feet. If they don't like what they see, they should walk out."
Stick with Nonstick?
"Nonstick chemicals raise sticky questions," a headline from a Scripps Howard News Service story alerted readers in February. A few days later, the Associated Press jumped in: "Teflon chemical a likely carcinogen."
Time to throw out your nonstick cookware?
Not quite. There's no evidence that Teflon or other nonstick coatings cause cancer. But it's worth learning how to use nonstick cookware properly. That means not overheating it and making sure your kitchen is well-ventilated.
The problem isn't Teflon (the brand name of DuPont's nonstick coating), but a chemical called PFOA (pronounced pee-FOE-uh), or perfluorooctanoic acid, which is used to make Teflon and other high-performance plastics known as fluorochemicals.
Some, called fluorotelomers, make food packaging (like microwave popcorn bags) grease-resistant, carpeting stain-resistant, and clothing fabrics (like Gore-Tex) water-repellent.
Others, called fluoropolymers, make nonstick cookware stick-resistant. The fluoropolymer used in most nonstick products, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), is one of the slipperiest substances known.
Nonstick cookware made with Teflon or some other company's PTFE includes Calphalon, T-Fal, Circulon, Anolon, Farberware, and KitchenAid.
When polytetrafluoroethylene is manufacturered, some PFOA is released into the environment. And that's what got DuPont--the major supplier of nonstick coatings--into trouble.
Residents living around the company's Parkersburg, West Virginia, plant discovered that PFOA was polluting their drinking water.
In 2001, they sued the company, eventually settling for more than $80 million. During the depositions, the plaintiffs learned that DuPont had been hiding critical safety information about PFOA from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for more than 20 years.
In 1981 the company discovered that PFOA is passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus. At the time, animal studies had already suggested that the offspring of mothers who were exposed to PFOA were more likely to be born with birth defects of the eye.
Worse, two of seven pregnant DuPont employees who were exposed to PFOA gave birth to infants with serious birth defects of the face and eyes, according to internal company documents obtained by the Environmental Working Group, a consumer watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.
When the EPA learned that DuPont had withheld safety information, the agency assessed the company the largest civil penalty in the EPA's history, $16 million.
(To put that in perspective, PFOA is used in products that accounted for some $1 billion in sales for DuPont in 2004, according to the Associated Press.) DuPont also agreed to drastically cut PFOA emissions.
But it may be too late.
"It's very clear that PFOA is being released into the environment," says Lynn Goldman of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. Goldman is the former assistant administrator of the EPA's Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances.
"So far, everywhere we have looked we have found PFOA--in men, women, and children, in the U.S. and throughout the world, even in Arctic polar bears. But we don't know if it's toxic to people at these levels."
Goldman and her colleagues have tested the umbilical cord blood of 300 infants for PFOA and are looking at whether PFOA might have affected their birth weights or thyroid hormones.
Meanwhile, the EPA's Science Advisory Board has labeled PFOA a "likely human carcinogen," since high doses cause liver, pancreatic, and testicular cancer in some laboratory animals.
Avoiding PFOA isn't easy, because scientists haven't yet figured out how people become exposed to the chemical. The Food and Drug Administration thinks that most of our PFOA exposure doesn't come from food or cookware.
"Our belief, based on more than intuition but less than hard facts," says FDA food-safety spokesperson George Pauli, "is that the overwhelming majority of PFOA that consumers are exposed to comes from stain-resistant fabrics, carpeting, and upholstery."
What about cookware and food?
* Nonstick cookware. "PFOA is certainly used to make nonstick coatings," says Pauli. "But there's essentially none left in the cookware. In searing the coating onto the pan, so much of the PFOA is driven off that our chemists cannot detect it in the pans because there is just too little left there."
The only way the FDA chemists could get any PFOA out of the cookware, says Pauli, was to scrape off all the nonstick coating and grind it up. Even then, the amount of PFOA they found was "absolutely trivial."
What happens if you swallow a Teflon flake that chips or scratches off the cookware? Nothing, claims DuPont, because the coating is chemically inert at normal cooking and body temperatures.
Too much heat is a more likely source of trouble.
An empty nonstick pan left on a burner can get too hot and reach a temperature where gases are released, says William Raiford, global technology manager for DuPont's Fluoropolymer Solutions Business.
"But as long as you have food or liquid in the pan, there really is no risk of overheating the nonstick coating, even if you set your burner on high. The water or food serves as a heat sink and the energy goes into heating and boiling the water or the food."
If you do keep the pan on high for too long, says Raiford, the food will begin to smoke and burn before the nonstick lining gets hot enough to release gases.
Good thing, since DuPont does acknowledge that fumes produced by Teflon that's overheated "can produce symptoms referred to as 'polymer fume fever'--flu-like symptoms that are relatively quickly reversed in humans but can be fatal to the very sensitive respiratory systems of birds." (That's one reason why you should never keep your birdcage in the kitchen, says the company.)
Should you take DuPont at its word that Teflon nonstick cookware is safe under normal use? The company's history of withholding critical safety information doesn't exactly instill confidence in its assurances.
The bottom line is that there are no published studies looking at people who have routinely used nonstick cookware for years.
Until more is known, if you use nonstick cookware:
* never leave it empty on an open burner or in an oven that's on
* don't use it for broiling, which heats at high temperatures
* make sure your kitchen has good air circulation
* Grease-resistant food packaging.
To prevent oil from soaking through, some food packages are lined with fluorotelomers.
"There's a greater potential for being exposed to PFOA from this kind of food packaging than from nonstick cookware," says the FDA's George Pauli.
Some microwave popcorn bags, french fry cartons, hash brown sleeves, and muffin bags have fluorotelomer linings, according to FDA chemists.
"PFOA itself is not used to make them," Pauli points out, "but it can form as an impurity at very low levels in the manufacture of some grease-proof coatings."
When FDA chemist Timothy Begley and his colleagues analyzed the oil in bags of microwaved popcorn, they found that some of the linings had leached into the oil. "But we found no PFOA," he reports.
PFOA or no PFOA, if you want to avoid food packaging that's made with fluorotelomers, you're out of luck.
"There's nothing on the label and there's nothing consumers can see on the packaging that would indicate the use of these fluorotelomers," says Begley.
Time to Ban Triclosan?
Dial Liquid Antibacterial Soap. Colgate Total Toothpaste. Clearasil Daily Face Wash. Revlon ColorStay LipSHINE Lipcolor Plus Gloss. Right Guard Deodorant. Shield Deodorant Soap Bar. Vaseline Intensive Care Antibacterial Hand Lotion. Aveeno Therapeutic Shave Gel.
Check your kitchen and bathroom. Odds are they're filled with products that contain triclosan (or its chemical cousin triclocarban).
The antibacterial agent is in some eight out of ten liquid soaps, three out of ten bar soaps, and many dish detergents. It's even in some plaque-fighting toothpastes.
The chemical is a staple in the household products that millions of Americans use to help protect themselves against food poisoning and other bugs. But triclosan's days may be numbered. Last fall, an advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration concluded that the use of triclosan (and triclocarban) in household products posed unacceptable risks to human health and the environment.
The FDA, which usually follows the advice of its panels, said it would decide by 2007 whether to ban the two bacteria-killers from household products. Why a ban?
Triclosan is no better at preventing infections than plain soap and water, the panel concluded after reviewing the five scientific studies that tested antibacterial soap against regular soap.
What's more, panel members were told that the widespread use of triclosan might spur the growth of triclosan-resistant "super" bacteria, which could endanger patients in hospitals and nursing homes, where soaps and cleaners that contain the antibacterial chemical are widely used.
The panel also heard reports that triclosan was winding up in sewers and lakes, where it could kill off algae, which are essential for the food that sustains aquatic life.
"Why continue in a situation where there is potential risk and there is no demonstrable benefit?" asked Ernest Clyburn of the Medical University of South Carolina, echoing other panel members.
Soap and detergent manufacturers are sure to fight a ban.
For years, they've marketed their triclosan- and triclocarban-containing products as "antibacterial" without having to prove that they work any better than regular soap under normal use.
Soap helps wash away bacteria. Studies show that triclosan kills bacteria on the skin, but only if used properly. That means scrubbing for at least one minute, far longer than people take to wash. You won't find that information on packages of most soaps, detergents, and other products that contain triclosan.
Days after the FDA panel met, a coalition of 17 public health groups asked the FDA to immediately ban triclosan from soaps, cleaners, and other household products. The agency says that it is considering the petition.
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|Title Annotation:||supermarket cleanliness|
|Publication:||Nutrition Action Healthletter|
|Date:||May 1, 2006|
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