Uncovered: The Secrets That Allow Dodgy Foods and Additives Onto Our Shelves

Ever since I began to investigate food and food additives, I've been puzzled over how some of these things were allowed into our food supply. Who on earth decided they were safe? And why?

After all, you don't need to be a genius to track down the nasty side-effects of some of these products, like MSG, or sodium nitrite, or aspartame.

So, how did they ever come to be approved?

I've been digging up some dirt on how the Australian approval process works, and I can't begin to tell you how thoroughly disgusted I am.

Which is why I'm writing it on my blog. I want the world to see this and be disgusted, too. This is my protest....

The Australian government body in charge of approving new foodstuffs, and ensuring the safety of our food, is called Food Standards Australia New Zealand (Henceforth referred to as FSANZ).

Their website reassures us that their vision is to ensure a safe food supply and a "well-informed" public.

(Yes! I agree! I am about to do my bit to inform the public.)

It may surprise you to know that when a company applies to get approval for their food/additive, FSANZ are allowed to accept a "fee" from that company to "expedite the approval process".

Their 2009 - 2010 budget estimate (which is available online if you do some digging around) reveals almost $1.5 million income from sources listed simply as "Other".

When questioned via Twitter, they conceded that companies may pay between $50,000 - $125,000 to "speed up the application process".

Now, $125,000 is probably peanuts when compared to the expense of developing the product, and the expected revenue once it hits the market, but...

How much pressure does this place on scientists to rule in favour of a company? Can they, in all honesty, claim to be "independant" when they are recieving funds from entities with a huge vested interest in their decisions?

Now, you would think that an organisation charged with the safety of our food supply, would be interested only in....the safety of our food supply!! But for some reason that I have yet to fathom, FSANZ must take into account World Trade Organisation obligations, such as "Barriers to Trade" when considering whether to approve novel foods (like Genetically Modified Foods) or food additives.

Now, lets think about this for a moment....

The World Trade Organisation's aim is to promote international trade, and to make sure that member countries do not "put up barriers" to trade from other member countries.

Right. So, when huge international corporations like Monsanto, apply to get their genetically modified crops approved in Australia, which is more important?? The safety of those crops, or worrying about whether we are "putting up trade barriers"....?

Apparently, refusing a product on the grounds that the public opposes it, is not a good enough excuse for the World Trade Organisation.

The body in charge of food safety needs to concern itself with food safety!! Please. Let someone else worry about WTO "obligations".

But the thing that infuriated me the most, was reading through their assessment for products currently seeking approval into Australia (At the time of writing, this includes two lines of genetically modified soybeans to be grown here in Australia, genetically modified corn for import, and a new artificial sweetener).

I have never taken it apon myself to read this literature before (but you can be assured that I will be, from here on in...) and I was shocked to discover that their assessment read more like a marketing proposal, than the unbiased, scientific assessment that I was expecting.

Just to give you an idea, here's a few things that I picked up from the application for the new artificial sweetener (it is no longer open for public submissions, but the Risk Assessment can still be found here.)

This new artificial sweetener, called Advantame, comes from the Ajinimoto Company (one of the world's largest suppliers of aspartame and MSG), and doubles as a flavour enhancer (how convenient.)

Advantame is 100 times sweeter than aspartame, and 20,000 times sweeter than sucrose. (Remember aspartame? The neurotoxin? You can refresh your memory here). It has been synthesised from aspartame and it's real name is: (Brace yourself...) L-Phenylalanine, N-[3-(3-hydroxy-4-methoxyphenyl) propyl]-L-alpha-aspartyl-, 2-methyl-ester, monohydrate.

 "According to the Applicant" there were several "related substances" that have been identified in the final product as "manufacturing impurities...These appear to include lead and arsenic. But only in trace amounts. (That's comforting.)

The toxicological database for Advantame is "extensive" and consists entirely of "unpublished studies sponsored by the applicant" (Even more comforting). In other words, the company did all the studies themselves, and have not published any, so none have been subjected to peer-review.

Among the issues brought up in the various animal studies, there was

  - lowered blood counts (including lowered Red Blood Cell count and T lymphocytes - possibly related to the point further down regarding the thymus gland - the site of T-Cell maturation),

 - mineralisation of the kidney's in females,

 - smaller weight of thymus gland (the thymus gland plays an important role in immune function - this sounds alarm bells to me...)

 - congestion of the lungs in males,

 - higher water consumption but lower urinary output (??? More alarm bells...)

 - lowered prothrombin times (this indicates how long it takes for blood to clot - an abnormal prothrombin time can be an indicator of liver disease).

- lowered spleen weight, and uterus and cervical weights in female dogs.

 - enlarged livers in male mice

 - rabbits appeared to be particularly sensitive to Advantame with female deaths reported, decreased ovarian weights, and also miscarriage.

Alarm bells getting louder and louder.

Many of these issues came up in several different studies involving different animals. The smaller thymus in males, for instance, was observed in studies with rats, and also with dogs. In fact, the male dogs being treated with high doses of Advantame, had thymus glands that were approximately half the size of the dogs in the control group!

Are you disturbed yet? I certainly am.

But here's what's even more disturbing....

For all of the problems mentioned above - every single one of them - there was an excuse for why these problems were not caused by the "treatment" (ie. feeding them Advantame). One of the excuses listed several times, was that the problem mustn't be treatment related, because it did not show up in both males AND females.

I am no scientist, but do we not make any allowances for differences between the sexes? Males and females are different! Some things may affect one sex more than the other, due to differences in body weight, metabolism or hormones.

Now, maybe they are right. Perhaps all of the problems mentioned are entirely coincidental...

But what if they're not...?

This product is proposed for use in flavoured milk products (among other things)....which are especially attractive to children. Would you take the risk? (No. Not me!)

The assessment concludes by saying: "There are no public health and safety issues associated with the proposed addition of Advantame to food". (Are you sure about that?!)

The assessments put forward for the genetically modified foods are no more reassuring, I'm afraid.

FSANZ does not take it apon themselves to perform any safety or toxicology studies. They rely apon the information given to them by the applicant.

And not only that, but once approved, FSANZ relies apon the applicant to inform them if any problems or health issues come to their attention. (Yes. Good luck with that!).

I am so outraged by this!! I believe this is too important to be taking risks with - we're talking about our food here, the very thing that sustains us - and it infuriates me to see our regulatory agencies glossing over problems.

I rang FSANZ and requested a meeting with their scientists. They told me this was not the "done thing", but changed their minds apon learning that I was planning to stand outside their building with a large sign.

After several attempts to organise a meeting, after which they did not return my calls, I decided I needed a new strategy. (I have since returned to work, so the standing out the front with a large sign plan has been put on the back-burner)

At first, I had a good mind to go to the Health Minister, however I've heard from several sources recently, that getting a hearing with the Health Minister is like "pulling hen's teeth".

I am now wondering if it would be more effective to go to my local Member of Parliament and voice my concerns. In my opinion, FSANZ needs a complete overhaul, not to mention more funding. It is embarrassing (not to mention puts them in a compromising position) that a government department needs to take fees from companies in order to run their agency.

Not good enough!!!


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