Monday, July 27, 2009

Alert: Chilean Farmed Salmon Tainted with Dangerous Antibiotic

Salmon that is farmed in Chile and widely sold in the U.S. is being fed hundreds of thousands of pounds of an antibiotic that is so dangerous that its use is prohibited in food producing animals--that includes fish--by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The antibiotic, chloramphenicol, is linked to a lethal human blood disorder and is a suspected cause of cancer. There is no known safe dose; It is only used to treat serious human infections.

The situation shows, once again, how our food inspection system is so inadequate. The FDA should be inspecting Chilean salmon and stopping shipments from entering the U.S. if they contain any trace of the antibiotic.

But according to Public Citizen the FDA inspects only 1 to 2% of all seafood entering the U.S.

What a pickle, to mix metaphors: I not only love the taste of salmon, but I know it's healthy for my heart. And farmed salmon is a whole lot cheaper than wild salmon.

But if you put this in context, and think about the fact that the federal government allows other kinds of antibiotics to be fed routinely to cattle whose flesh is supposedly safe, this chloramphenicol has to be so dangerous that we should do our best to avoid it.

Word about Chilean salmon came today in a New York Times article that reported that Chile used 718,000 pounds of antibiotics last year to keep farmed salmon from dying from infections; about one-third were from the most dangerous family of antibiotics, quinolones. Farmed ocean fish are vulnerable to infection because they are grown in pens that can be unsanitary and overcrowded.

By comparison, Norway used only 2,075 pounds last year for its farmed salmon. This info became public because the environmental group, Oceana, requested the information.

Chile is the biggest supplier of salmon to the U.S., and the fish are sold by giant retailers including Wal-Mart and Safeway who, according to the Times, have reduced their purchases from the company because of health concerns.

Indirectly, of course, that means they are still selling at least some Chilean salmon.

What's a health-conscious consumer to do?

This is truly a case of buyer beware. Supermarkets, as I've noted here before, are required to label their seafood as wild or farmed and with country of origin. Your local fish monger is not covered by the law, but be sure to ask if the information is not visible.

So, to the best of your ability, buy only wild Pacific salmon, and stay within your budget by eating less. Norwegian salmon farmers rely much less on antibiotics, so that is a healthier choice. Or, try farmed U.S. trout instead for a change, which is in the same family as salmon. Environmentalists say that fish like trout that are farmed inland, rather than in the ocean, are safe to eat.

Monday, July 20, 2009

"Traitor Joe's" Takes Heat for Sales of Endangered Fish

Traitor Joe's: That's the nickname Greenpeace has pasted on Trader Joe's because the stores sell red-list fish: fish caught in ways that harm ocean habitats or other creatures or whose numbers are so low they may become extinct.

Greenpeace decided to put on the pressure because the private owners behind the supermarket chain have not been willing to even disclose how and where they get their seafood. (According to a statement from Trader Joe's, company policy is never to participate in surveys.) So now you can go to a "Traitor Joe" website and send the chain a singing fish telegram or take other action in protest.

Greenpeace recently updated the scorecards that rate markets on their seafood practices, and Trader Joe's got an F.

That's because, says Greenpeace:
  • Trader Joe's has no sustainable seafood policy
  • Isn't working with fishing industry groups or others trying to promote sustainable practices
  • Doesn't label its products so consumers can understand what they're buying
  • And claims in its ads that it is buying in a sustainable fashion, even though it's selling orange roughy and other species whose survival is in question. (See my March blog about for more info on sustainable fish.)
A statement from Jon Basalone, Executive Vice President Marketing & Merchandising for Trader Joe's, says that "Hearing recent feedback, our goal is to offer seafood options that fit customer needs ranging from food safety and taste to concern over the environment." It goes on to say that the company will take into account in its purchasing decisions the fish recommendations of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The company further denies that it actually sells some of the "red-list" species that Greenpeace claims it does, although, in a backhanded attempt to say it is really doing a better job than its competitors, it admits to selling some : "Trader Joe's sells fewer items on that 'Red List' than the #1 ranked grocery retailer in their report." Nothing to be proud of, folks.

And if true, maybe Trader Joe's would have spared itself this public relations problem if it had cooperated with Greenpeace in the first place.

In the meantime, those of us who shop at Trader Joe's should take the chain at its word that it listens to its customers and speak up about the seafood on sale. Ditto for its competitors. Remember, as you shop, that federal law now requires supermarkets to label all seafood with its place of origin and method of catch. If you don't see that information, let the store manager know you've noticed and expect better of the store.

In today's world of growing scarcity, unfortunately, we now need to know which species have been over-fished and how others are caught. Otherwise, we'll come to the point where the fish we love to eat will have been loved out of existence. You can get educated quickly at the Monterey Bay Aquarium website.##

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Proposed FDA Action To Cut Doses of Tylenol Shows Need for Disclosure in Ads of Active Ingredients

Advertising for over-the-counter medicines should disclose the active ingredients in them.

That should be the take-home message today in response to the news that an FDA advisory panel has recommended that Tylenol be sold in doses of no more than 325 milligrams, and that Percocet and Vicodin be banned altogether.

The sad fact is that the need for disclosure has been apparent for years. Ten years ago, The Women's Consumer Foundation conducted a face-to-face survey of 181 inner-city women that found a dangerous lack of understanding of the most basic information about over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. Many of the women--almost half--were taking medicines like Tylenol without knowing what was in them, and many were taking more than the recommended doses without realizing the danger.

Fewer than half the women knew that acetaminophen is the active ingredient in Tylenol (they were given four possible answers from which to choose) despite the fact that Tylenol was the drug that the women said they bought most often.

And, most dangerous of all, 44 percent of the women said they knew people who very often, or somewhat often, took more than the recommended dosages; 25 percent admitted to doing so themselves.

At the time we first published these findings on our not-for-profit website, SIS (now defunct, as is the Women's Consumer Foundation), the drug manufacturers claimed that our findings were wrong, that people do read and understand labels and don't take more than the recommended doses.

This latest recommendation by the FDA panel puts the lie to those assertions because it was based on statistics showing that 400 people die every year, and 42,000 are hospitalized in the U.S. because they overdosed themselves. Percocet and Vicodin contain a narcotic and acetaminophen, which is a leading cause of liver damage.

The panel members agreed that consumers need to be better educated about OTC medicines, and I concur.

The simplest way to do that is via the ads for these drugs. The FDA should require that all advertising for OTC drugs disclose the generic names of their active ingredients.

This remedy was actually proposed by a Federal Trade Commission administrative law judge more than 20 years ago. Sadly, the commission decided not to follow the recommendation.

So in all the years since, consumers have been bombarded with billions of dollars of OTC drug ads that mis-educate them, that lead them to believe that Tylenol contains some unique ingredient. Ditto for Nyquil, TheraFlu, Alka-Seltzer, etc. In reality, these expensive brand name products contain inexpensive ingredients that can be bought generically for far less--often 50 percent less.

So hundreds of people are dying, thousands are ending up in hospitals and millions are wasting their money because of advertising that misinforms and fails to provide the most necessary, basic information: the active ingredients in the medications.