Thursday, August 26, 2010

Egg Recall Reveals Larger Food Policy Problems

When I read about the recall of eggs shipped here to California, among other states, I printed out the list of the identifying numbers on the recalled cartons and opened my refrigerator. Lo and behold, there were two cartons of recalled eggs that we had purchased recently from the grocery store.

"We should become urban farmers," I told my husband, after he dispatched the eggs down the garbage disposal. At least then we would know where our eggs came from, instead of worrying about tainted eggs shipped from an Iowa mega-farm with a history of safety violations showing up in our West Coast home.

The Washington Post ran a fascinating article this week explaining how cost-cutting consolidation and growth in the egg industry have far outpaced regulation, which lead to the egg recall. "Just 192 large egg companies own about 95 percent of laying hens in this country, down from 2,500 in 1987," wrote the Post's Lyndsey Layton, and most of the eggs come from just five states. Although consolidation has accelerated over the past 20 years, regulation has not. Layton wrote that "the Food and Drug Administration, which has responsibility for the safety of whole eggs, had never inspected the two Iowa-based facilities at the heart of the massive recall that began 10 days ago."

Layton explained that different regulatory agencies divvy up who inspects chickens and who inspects eggs, and that some states do their own egg inspections while others (such as Iowa) do not. These circumstances make it easy for egg inspection to fall through the cracks. New legislation that would require yearly FDA inspections of egg producers is working its way through Congress now.

Unfortunately, legislation doesn't always protect public health. Take agricultural subsidies, for example. In a recent New York Times article about obesity in America, writer Natasha Singer explains that making healthier food cheaper could help Americans eat healthier and lose weight. Government subsidies for the products used in fast foods, though, make them more affordable for consumers than fresh fruits, vegetables, and healthier choices. Singer explains:
The inflation-adjusted price of a McDonald's quarter-pounder with cheese... fell 5.44 percent from 1990 to 2007, according to an article on the economics of child obesity published in the journal Health Affairs. But the inflation-adjusted price of fruit and vegetables, which are not subject to federal largess, rose 17 percent just from 1997 to 2003, the study said. Cutting agricultural subsidies would have a big impact on people's eating habits....
Government policies should support the health and safety needs of the majority of Americans, and we're clearly not there yet, as food recalls increase and healthy food gets more expensive.

Not that everyone has to start a backyard farm; I can't even talk the family into getting a beehive. But I think that we do need to question how our food is produced and where exactly our food comes from and, if necessary, pay more to support food that is healthier and safer until changes in regulations and subsidy policies make that a reality.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Flu Vaccine Season Returns, With a Twist

With the H1N1 "swine flu" pandemic officially over - as of last week - WebMD reports that the CDC is gearing up for a seasonal flu vaccination campaign in September called "Flu Ends with U." Maybe the campaign will help clear up a heap of confusion about flu vaccines these days.

Part of the problem is that flu vaccination recommendations have changed substantially over the past few years. In 2010-2011, for the first time ever, the flu vaccine is recommended for everyone 6 months or older (anyone can have the flu shot, containing killed flu viruses; the flu nasal spray contains inactivated (modified) live flu viruses and is recommended for a smaller subset of people).

In 2009, the CDC recommended the seasonal flu vaccine only for children ages 6 months to 18 years, and adults ages 50 and over (with some exceptions for certain younger adults). In 2008, the flu vaccine was only recommended for children ages 6 months to 5 years old and adults 50 and over (with some exceptions).

The viruses that cause the flu are constantly mutating, and in response a new flu vaccine has to be developed each year, at least until researchers figure out how to make a universal flu vaccine that can provide long-term protection. Researchers make an educated guess about which three flu viruses will cause the most damage in the future, then modify the viruses to use them in vaccines by growing them, usually in chicken eggs, a time-consuming process. If a different flu virus spreads, the vaccine won't protect against it.

The WebMD article pointed out CDC focus group research that found that many people are not happy with the universal flu vaccination recommendations. Catching the flu is not a big deal to many people, but it can have serious consequences for some. On average, about 36,000 people die from flu complications each year, primarily the elderly. In 2009, about 12,000 Americans died from complications of swine flu, mostly those under age 65, according to the CDC.

The flu vaccinations recommendations have changed over the years to protect a wider range of people, and also to keep healthier people from catching and passing on the flu to others. It might be inconvenient to get flu vaccinations for the whole family, but it's still a good idea.


Friday, August 13, 2010

Causes of Early Puberty in Girls

Early puberty in girls is becoming a serious problem. A recent Pediatrics study of 1,239 girls found that the rates of early puberty, measured by breast development at age 7, has spiked over the past decade. The rates of early puberty have doubled for white girls (from 5% to 10%) and also increased for black non-Hispanic girls (from 15% to 23%). Fifteen percent of Hispanic girls also show signs of early puberty at age 7.

Along with large racial/genetic differences in early puberty onset in girls, there are two other potential causes. It might be caused by chemicals in the environment that mimic estrogen or cause other hormonal disruptions, triggering the body to begin puberty. Prime chemical suspects include pesticides and herbicides, flame retardants, and bisphenol A (BPA) (a chemical I've blogged about before), according to an article on early puberty by USA Today's Liz Szabo.

Weight also plays a role. The study found that obese and overweight girls, as measured by their body mass index (BMI), are more likely to start puberty early than normal-weight girls. Fat cells in their bodies create and release the hormone leptin, which can trigger puberty.

Puberty onset is a tricky thing, though, because it is also influenced by other medical, social, or environmental factors. Certain rare medical problems, such as a tumor or meningitis, can cause early puberty. Some studies have suggested that girls are more likely to start puberty earlier than average if they are adopted internationally, don't live with their biological fathers, or if their mothers are depressed.

Whatever the cause, early onset of puberty is both physically and emotionally unhealthy for girls. These girls are more likely to have low self-esteem, have a poor body image, become sexually active earlier, and develop certain cancers later in life, the Pediatrics study stated.

With one in three U.S. children overweight or obese, the rates of early puberty will probably continue to increase. Early puberty is yet another reason to substantively address the many causes of obesity in this country, and to substantively regulate how certain chemicals are used in the environment, food packaging, and foods.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

Adults and Kids Harmed by CT Scans

Radiation overdoses in both adults and children from computed tomography (CT) scans have lead to a lot of worry and finger-pointing in the news recently.

The issue was uncovered in a New York Times investigation by Walt Bogdanich of patients who experienced strange side effects after receiving CT scans to measure blood flow to their brain. CT scanners take a series of X-rays to create three-dimensional images of the body.

Bogdanich reported that over 400 patients at hospitals in California, Alabama, and Florida received as much as 13 times the recommended radiation doses from CT scanners. After the scans, the patients developed symptoms such as hair loss, confusion, and memory loss, and might now be at increased risk of developing cancer and brain damage.

Most of the scanners in question were made by GE Healthcare, Bogdanich reported. Hospital staff blame the overdoses on faulty training about how to use a new feature of the CT scanners designed to reduce the radiation dose. They say that a glitch in the scanners' software unintentionally lead to radiation overdoses. GE Healthcare, on the other hand, blames the hospital staff for misusing and misunderstanding this feature, and for not tracking the radiation doses more carefully for each patient.

The FDA had been investigating this issue over the past year, but "was unaware of the magnitude of those overdoses until The Times brought them to the agency's attention," Bogdanich wrote.

Meanwhile, Chicago Tribune reporter Judith Graham wrote that many children are receiving unnecessary adult-sized doses of radiation when they get CT scans. Because children often receive CT scans at hospitals for adults, the radiation doses are not always adjusted for the child's weight and size.