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Hormones, pesticides, antibiotics, slaughterhouse waste, GMOs – conventional food production methods are mighty murky. Here's how to protect yourself.

When Dr Shiv Chopra – microbiologist, former senior advisor to Health Canadian, and whistleblower – conducted an Australian lecture tour to promote his book, Corrupt to the Core, which challenges the scientific and policy basis of food safety, he said removing just five substances from food production would ensure the world received safe food. These are hormones, pesticides, antibiotics, slaughterhouse waste, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

He added that the European Union (EU) is leading the way in this, with much tougher regulation. This essentially means Australia produces two standards of food: one for export that complies with the higher regulations, and one of lower standard for the local market. The clear message from this internationally-recognised expert – who David Suzuki has hailed as a hero – is that Australian policy makers must safeguard food supply safety. Here is an overview of our situation.

Problem #1: Hormones

Around 40 percent of beef sold in Australia is treated with hormone growth promotants (HGPs), natural or synthetic veterinary drugs that are said to increase cattle growth rates by up to 30 percent. Female (oestradiol and progesterone) or male hormones (testosterone and trenbolone acetate), or a combination, are most commonly used. The courageous announcement by Coles that it would cease stocking beef dosed with HGPs from 1 January, 2011 brought a mixed reaction. On the one hand, those campaigning against hormone use were delighted. On the other, many consumers expressed concern that this would cause meat prices to rise.

The meat industry was scathing about the move, pointing out that Australian beef cattle farmers have used HGPs with health authorities’ blessing since 1979 to improve food conversion rates, so reducing farming production costs. HGPs are currently registered for use in New Zealand, the USA, Canada, South Africa, and Japan. However, the EU banned them in 1988, and this ban remains strictly in force. HGPs are also banned in Tasmania. Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) says that in 1998 the World Trade Organisation found the EU's ban was not supported by science and was inconsistent with its WTO obligations. It also claims there is negligible difference in hormone levels found in beef raised with HGPs, and both the MLA and the CSIRO insist food safety is not an issue with HGP use.

However, research now suggests that even small amounts of hormones can have an impact, especially on foetuses and young children. Because the endocrine system is involved in almost every bodily function, exposure to synthetic hormones while the body is still developing may lead to serious problems in adulthood, like an increased risk of breast and prostate cancer, early onset of puberty, and infertility. On the good news front, in April 2011, Coles began requesting hormone-free pork from local and overseas suppliers; they comment that this hasn’t been difficult, as hormones are not widely used in Australian pork production. Also, HGPs are not approved for the lamb, dairy or poultry industries.

Problem #2: Antibiotics

More than 60 per cent of the antibiotics used in Australia are given to farm animals. The more intense the farming practice, the more the animals are likely to be heavily dosed with antibiotics to treat and prevent disease and speed growth. The drugs are approved for this particular use by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), which sets withholding periods for the approved uses, that is, the minimum time that must elapse between the last use of the drug and the slaughter of the animal for human consumption or, with poultry, when eggs are collected.

The MLA says the Australian government tests for antibiotic residues as part of its National Residue Survey program and that “no antibiotic residues have been detected in poultry products for years.” However, more than 60 percent of antibiotics used in Australia are given to farm animals, and aggressive agricultural application of these drugs is linked to the emergence of new strains of human infections, notably methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which fail to respond to antibiotics. The EU bans the use of antibiotics.

Problem #3: Slaughterhouse waste

Meat production accounts for about half the slaughtered animal. Everything else is rendered into feed for livestock (even though these animals are not carnivores), or pet food. This practice greatly increases the risk of transferring disease. A suspected – but not proven – cause of mad cow disease or BSE, a deadly condition contracted by eating the meat of infected animals – was slaughterhouse waste, especially the brains and spinal cords of animals with the disease. As a result, many countries banned the inclusion of nerve tissue. Rendered products are banned in the EU, and feeding cattle with meat meal made from abattoir waste has been prohibited in Australia since 1996.

Problem #4: Pesticides and herbicides

While many insist that chemical residues of fruit and vegetables are so minor they pose no risk, recent research tells a different story. An American Journal of Epidemiology study has revealed that people who lived within 500 metres of fields sprayed with the fungicide maneb and the herbicide paraquat between 1974 and 1999 had a 75 percent increased risk for Parkinson’s disease.

Most pesticides and herbicides are classified as neurotoxins. There’s particular concern about exposure in pregnant women and young children, for where low-level exposure may not harm an adult, it could be a totally different story with a foetus or child as the developing brain and endocrine system are highly sensitive. This is evidenced in an Environmental Health Perspectives study, which found children in homes where household insecticides were used were twice as likely to develop brain cancer as those from homes where insecticides weren’t used.

The National Toxics Network (www.ntn.org.au) and WWF-Australia recently released a report showing that more than 80 pesticides used in Australia are banned overseas. Seventeen of these are probable carcinogens, while 48 can potentially interfere with hormones. The World Health Organisation has classified more than 20 as extremely or highly dangerous. One of these is endosulfan, which is banned in more than 60 countries. A recent 60 Minutes report investigated the use of endosulfan and the fungicide carbendazim, which were implicated (but not proven) in fish deformities found at the Sunland Fish Hatchery and in the Noosa River area in 2009.

The report further claimed the two chemicals are dangerous for consumers, to which the peak horticulture organisation, Growcom, and APVMA quickly responded. “Australian fruit and vegetables are among the safest in the world to eat,” said APVMA public affairs manager, Dr Simon Cubit. “Agricultural chemicals will only be registered in Australia if the residue levels they produce on fruit and vegetables are below scientifically assessed health standards.” He added that Australia’s extensive residue-testing system, which involves local, state and federal regulators, is supplemented by wide-ranging testing by commodity groups and supermarket chains. “Of the tens of thousands of tests done annually, there are very few cases where residues are found,” said Cubit.

The NTN-WWF report says APVMA does not apply the same precautionary approach taken by the EU, where pesticides have to be proven safe in terms of human health, before being approved for use.

Problem #5: GMOs

The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, the official regulatory body for GM foods in Australia, has approved three types of GM crops to be grown here commercially: herbicide-resistant GM cotton, GM canola (although some states have moratoria that prevent it being grown), and insect- and herbicide-resistant GM blue carnations. The CSIRO says other plants have been approved for controlled releases.

However, many imported GM food products are approved for consumption, notably the ubiquitous soy bean, canola, corn (think tacos, tortillas, corn syrup …), and potatoes. These foods are typically found only in processed foods, because they cannot be sold as fresh food. Labels should reveal whether a product contains GM ingredients, as this is a legal requirement. The exceptions are foods containing no more than one percent approved GM ingredients; or where the presence of GM is unintentional; or in “highly processed foods such as vegetable oils, and minor ingredients like processing aids, where novel DNA or proteins cannot be found.”

A recent study vindicates Australians’ reluctance to embrace GM. The research found the Bt toxin – present in many GM crops to make them toxic to pests, including 85 percent of US-grown corn – in the blood of pregnant and non-pregnant women eating a typical Canadian diet. It was also discovered in foetal blood, implying it could pass on to the next generation. It’s been claimed Bt poses no danger to human health or to the environment because the protein breaks down in the human gut, but its presence in human blood shows this assertion is incorrect. Forty-eight percent of GM crops are grown in the USA. The EU has never approved GMOs.

Eat safely and sustainably

* Buy certified organic food and/or grow your own produce.

* Buy from farm shops, or farmers markets. Many use sustainable methods, which usually means minimal chemicals.

* Buy Australian. Imported fresh fruit and veg may be heavily sprayed with chemicals long banned in many parts of the world.

* Eat a variety of fresh produce, so you’re not constantly exposed to the samechemicals.

The dirty dozen

The US Environmental Working Group has identified the top 12 fruits and vegetables most likely to have the highest pesticide residues, along with 15 conventional produce choices that typically have lower chemical levels. Buy organic: celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, capsicums, spinach, kale, cherries, potatoes, grapes. When organic is not available, buy conventional: onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mangoes, asparagus, peas, kiwifruit, cabbage, eggplant, rockmelon, watermelon, grapefruit, honeydew melon, sweet potatoes.

Keeping it clean

An estimated 5.4 million cases of food poisoning occur in Australia each year, killing 120 people and costing the economy around $1.2 billion in medical bills and reduced productivity, according to Food Standards Australia. The problem is also increasing around the world: a recent US study found that food-borne pathogens sicken 76 million people each year and kill about 5,000. The most common pathogens responsible for food-borne gastroenteritis are E. coli, norovirus, campylobacter, and non-typhoidal salmonella. In Australia, campylobacteriosis and salmonellosis rates are rising annually.

Australia has stringent safety standards for food production, through the entire supply chain from paddock to plate. Food Standards Australia works to the strategy of focusing on points in the food chain where hazards are introduced, rather than solving a problem at the end of the process. Primary production and processing standards have been developed for the egg, seafood, dairy and poultry-meat industries, while requirements are currently being assessed for raw milk products, seed sprouts, and meat and meat products.

Obviously, you have a major role to play in preventing food-borne disease by following basic rules: wash your hands before and after handling food; buy unblemished food that looks and smells fresh; thoroughly wash produce, whether organic or conventional; don’t leave meat, fish or dairy sitting in a hot car or a kitchen bench; watch use-by dates for perishables; refrigerate leftovers promptly; avoid cross-contamination by using separate chopping boards and utensils; keep your kitchen clean; and ensure your refrigerator is functioning properly.

These additional suggestions come from Heli Petrett PhD, author of Safe Food Handbook:

* If you have a vegetable garden, keep domestic animals away from ground-level plants. Monitor wildlife, as those animals can carry disease.

* Don’t buy pre-prepared, sliced, peeled fruits and vegetables.

* Trim any soft, discoloured, rotten or mouldy parts on hard produce, leaving a good margin. If these appear on soft fruits and vegetables, discard them.

* With seafood, remember: raw fish is risky; wild is usually safer than farmed; small is usually safer than large; domestic is usually safer than imported; dark parts of shellfish are more dangerous than light parts; diversification is a good idea; and cook thoroughly.

* Restrict consumption of deli (preserved) meats.

* Keep eggs, egg products, and egg dishes cold, and don’t store for too long.

* Be careful tasting food containing raw eggs, such as cake batter or biscuit dough.

* Wash all grains and legumes before use.

* Store nuts and nut butters in the refrigerator or freezer.

* Buy only pasteurised fruit juices.