Tom Philpott - June 2014

Are Nanoparticles From Packaging Getting Into Your Food?

| Wed Jun. 11, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

A while back, I wrote about the US regulatory system's strange attitude toward nanotechnology and food.

On the one hand, the Food and Drug Administration is on record stating that nanoparticles—which are microscopically tiny pieces of common materials like silver and clay—pose unique safety concerns. The particles, which measure in at a tiny fraction of the width of a human hair, "can have significantly altered bioavailability and may, therefore, raise new safety issues that have not been seen in their traditionally manufactured counterparts," the FDA wrote in a 2012 draft proposal for regulating nanoparticles in food. On the other hand, its solution—that the food industry conduct safety testing that is "as rigorous as possible" and geared specifically to nano-materials before releasing nano-containing products onto the market—will be voluntary.

But what about packaging—the wrappers and bags and whatnot that hold food to keep it fresh? Nano-sized silver has powerful antimicrobial properties and can be embedded in plastic to keep food fresh longer; and nanoparticles of clay can help bottles and other packaging block out air and moisture from penetrating, preventing spoilage. Yet research has suggested (see here and here) that nanoparticles can migrate from packaging to food, potentially exposing consumers.

One list of packaging that could contain nanoparticles includes beer bottles,  aluminum foil,  sandwich bags, and even a salad bowl.

So how widely is nanotech used in the containers that contact our food? Back in 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency released a "State of the Science Literature Review" on nanosilver (PDF; warning: 221 pages). The report confirms that nano-materials, including silver, are being used in food packaging, but shows why it's hard to get a grip on how just widely. "Current labeling regulations do not require that the nanomaterial be listed as an ingredient," neither in food or in food packaging, the EPA report states. And "manufacture of nanosilver-containing products is shifting to the Far East, especially China, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam," making it even harder to track nano-containing products that come in from abroad.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN)—a joint venture of Virginia Tech and the Wilson Center—keeps a running inventory of "nanotechnology-based consumer products introduced on the market." A PEN spokesperson stressed to me that its list isn't comprehensive—it by no means captures every nano-associated item, and some products on the list may no longer contain nanotech. That said, the database includes 20 products in the "food and beverage storage" category, including a couple of beer bottles,  aluminum foil,  sandwich bags, and even a salad bowl.

Meanwhile, environmental watchdog groups warn that nanotech-imbued packaging will soon become ubiquitous. "Major food companies are investing billions in nanofood and nanopackaging," Friends of the Earth stated in a 2014 report. Tom Neltner, a food additives researcher with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me in an email that, "we believe nano-engineered particles are being extensively used in food packaging."

One researcher says that he believes that "nano-engineered particles are being extensively used in food packaging."

When I asked Neltner for specifics, he sent me to Joseph Hotchkiss, director of the School of Packaging and Center for Packaging Innovation and Sustainability at Michigan State University, and a close watcher of the food-packaging industry. Hotchkiss told me that while nano-materials are quite attractive to the food industry as a way to cheaply prolong the shelf life of packaged foods, they currently "aren't widely used" because "no one knows for sure what kinds of risks from ingesting exquisitely tiny amounts of nano-materials may or not represent." As a result, the food industry is "waiting on the sidelines" until more safety research emerges.

Indeed, the above-noted EPA report reveals significant health concerns around nanoparticles. They "can pass through biological membranes," the report states, including the blood-brain barrier. And they're "small enough to penetrate even very small capillaries throughout the body."

What harm nanoparticles cause when they move about our bodies remains murky, though. "There are very limited well controlled human studies on the potential toxicities of nanosilver," the EPA states; but animal studies have shown potential toxicity for the liver, kidneys, and the immune system.

Back in March, the EPA  moved to block a company called Pathway Investment from marketing plastic food storage containers laced with nano-silver to the public. But what ran the company afoul with the EPA wasn't its use of nano-silver per se; rather, it was the claim that its product would kill microbiota in stored food. "Claims that mold, fungus or bacteria are controlled or destroyed by a particular product must be backed up with testing so that consumers know that the products do what the labels say,” the EPA's press release states.

Meanwhile, no one seems to know for sure how widely nanotech is being used in packaging, or what the health consequences are. And that's potentially a big problem stemming from some very small stuff.

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Over Easy: An Egg King Gets Dethroned

| Fri Jun. 6, 2014 3:08 PM EDT

Remember the salmonella outbreak of 2010, the one that that sickened 2,000 people and led to the recall of more than a half-billion eggs?

A federal investigation has pulled the curtain back on the way the man at the center of the outbreak, Jack DeCoster, ran his massive egg empire. He and his son Peter DeCoster have pleaded guilty to the "distribution of adulterated eggs in interstate commerce," resulting in the 2010 outbreak, the US Department of Justice reports.

And that's not all. One of DeCoster's companies, Quality Egg, also copped to attempting to bribe a USDA inspector, not once but twice in 2010, to allow it to send out eggs that didn't meet the agency's quality standards. The company also admitted to falsifying expiration dates on egg cartons "with the intent to mislead state regulators and retail egg customers regarding the true age of the eggs," between 2006 and 2010. 

Even before these revelations, the episode had revealed gaps in how the US regulatory system handles massive livestock operations. DeCoster's own company-run tests had found salmonella in its facilities before the outbreak, but it continued churning out eggs. Shortly before the outbreak, US Department of Agriculture inspectors had noted  filthy conditions but didn't act to halt them—they were there to inspect egg size, not cleanliness. The Food and Drug Administration, which does regulate food safety in large egg operations, filed a damning report on DeCoster's facilities—but only after those half-billion suspect eggs had been trucked out to supermarkets nationwide.

And though DeCoster ran no corporate empire along the lines of Tyson or Smithfield Foods, his egg fiefdom was quite large. My reporting at the time established that the companies he controlled accounted for more then 10 percent of US laying hens—more than any other egg producer.

DeCoster pere et fils face prison sentences of up to one year; fines of $100,000 each; and a "term of supervised release after any imprisonment for up to one year," the DOJ reports.

Thus, presumably, ends an illustrious career at the heights of industrial-scale agriculture. Previous highlights include:

 • In 2002, one of DeCoster's companies paid a $1.5 million settlement after women at one of his Iowa plants "alleged they were subjected to sexual harassment (including rape), abuse, and retaliation" by supervisory workers.

• In 2000 he got himself declared a "habitual offender" of Iowa's manure management laws by the state's attorney general.

• In 1996, Robert Reich, then the US labor secretary, slapped a $3.6 million fine on DeCoster's Maine egg operation for labor violations. Reich denounced the company as ''an agricultural sweatshop" where the workers are treated like ''animals."

This Video Shows What Happens to Baby Turkeys at the Butterball Plant

| Wed Jun. 4, 2014 7:08 PM EDT

There's no particularly egregious act of cruelty in the above video exposé of a Butterball turkey hatchery in North Carolina—no one stomps a screeching bird, or whacks one with a rod as these videos from 2011 and 2012 show. What the latest undercover video investigation by the animal-welfare group Mercy For Animals reveals is quite banal: the reduction of newborn turkey chicks to assembly-line widgets, material inputs whose result will fill millions of sandwiches. (Butterball raises a fifth of all US-grown turkeys).

We see just-hatched birds dumped onto conveyor belts and whisked along, occasionally getting a limb stuck in factory machinery. The severely injured ones get tossed unceremoniously into the hole of a machine, where, a voiceover informs us, "they'll be ground up alive." The surviving ones get lifted by workers into machines that cut off their toes and burn off their beaks. Then it's on to a truck and off to a factory farm, the voiceover declares.

The suffering we see can't be blamed on the viciousness of a rogue employee, as often happens after video-captured abuses. (Several Butterball employees were convicted of animal abuse in the wake of earlier Mercy for Animals investigations.) The scandal here lies in the routine practice, not spectacular violence.

It's something that meat eaters have a right to know about before they bite into a turkey sandwich. And it's something that the industry is fighting hard to keep out of sight and mind. Last year, the North Carolina legislature introduced a proposal that would criminalize the act of infiltrating a factory farm and documenting what goes on behind closed doors—a classic "ag-gag" bill of the type documented by Ted Genoways in Mother Jones last year. According to Mercy For Animals, the ag-gag provisions have generated major pushback within the state, but could still pass this year.

Your Vanilla Ice Cream Is About to Get Weirder

| Wed Jun. 4, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
ice cream monster
Illustration by Sam Island

Synthetic biology—or "synbio" for short—is the stuff of science fiction brought to life. Whereas standard-issue biotechnology involves inserting a gene from one organism into another, synbio entails stuff like inserting computer-generated DNA sequences into living cells: i.e, creating new organisms altogether. And the technology has made a major breakthrough: A company called Evolva has managed to create a compound called vanillin—the one that gives vanilla beans their distinctive and wildly popular flavor—grown not on a vine but rather in a culture of synthetic yeast.

Even though you'll likely soon be ingesting its products, synbio—like nanotechnology, which I looked at in two posts last week—is virtually unregulated and can show up in consumer products without any labeling requirements. But unlike nanotech, whose tiny particles already pervade more than 1600 consumer products (including 96 food ones), the industry around synthetic biology is only beginning its push its inventions into things we encounter daily.