No honesty about origin of American food / Suppressed report on hormone food risks (5/7/2006)

1.Let's Be Honest About Food's Origin
2.Minority report on hormone food risks suppressed

1.Let's Be Honest About Food's Origin
Counter Punch, July 5 2006
Salina, Kansas

The U.S. economy manages to follow the law and label every electronic gadget and stitch of clothing with where it comes from. Manufacturers likewise have no trouble putting a required nutrition list on food packages. But telling where food originates is called too daunting, and whether it was made by means unknown in nature is judged irrelevant.

The rest of the developed world doesn't see it so, and apparently isn't as beholden to agribusiness interests as is our government. Americans deserve better. Congress supported the right of consumers to know where their food comes from and included a country-of-origin label requirement back in the 2002 farm bill.

But the Agriculture Department opposed this, favoring a voluntary program, and its economists warned that implementation would cost $1.9 billion.

University of Florida researchers, on the other hand, estimated the price would be 90% below that claim and cost consumers less than one-tenth of a cent per pound of food.

The government then quietly lowered its estimate by two-thirds. But the political damage was done.

Congress postponed implementation.

Meanwhile, the nation's four biggest meat packers, which process more than 80% of the beef in this country, are quite happy. Without the label requirement, they can continue to import cheaper foreign beef to leverage down the price of American cattle. This imported beef gets an Agriculture Department inspection label when processed here, and is sold to unsuspecting consumers, who assume it is expensive American beef.

Also keeping consumers in the dark, the Food and Drug Administration refuses to require labels on food whose production involves genetic modification.

In 1994, the agency approved commercial use of a genetically engineered bovine growth hormone to increase milk production, and said that no label was needed.

Canada looked at the same test data from the manufacturer, Monsanto, and banned the hormone. So did the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and other industrialized countries. There is concern that the hormone raises human cancer risk. And because cows on the production stimulant are more prone to udder infection, more antibiotics are used. Overuse of antibiotics undermines our pharmaceutical arsenal by encouraging antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

The Agriculture Department reported in 2002 that two million of America's 9.2 million dairy cows received the hormone, and that larger dairies use it far more than farms with fewer than 100 cows. Given the industry's mixing of milk from many farms, most U.S. dairy products have milk from injected cows.

The FDA ruled in 1992 that genetically modified food did not differ from other foods in any meaningful way. But there was considerable debate within the FDA over the differences between foods with and without genetic modification. A lawsuit filed by the Alliance for Bio-Integrity prompted the agency to release documents that highlighted the concerns some agency scientists had about biotech foods.

But under this country's present voluntary system, they remain unlabeled. Polls show that demand for this kind of food is low, and a large majority wants labeling. That could spell market failure, so biotechnology companies and agribusiness giants are opposed.

Without any labeling and separating of genetically modified ingredients, many overseas buyers have rejected corn, soy, canola, and cotton from the United States and Canada. In this country, large natural-food supermarket chains have announced that they will use no genetically modified foods in store brands.

But most processed food in this country contains soy, corn, or both in some form, and 80 percent of soy and 38% of corn commercially grown in the United States is genetically altered.

In a free and open market, transparency is necessary for consumers to know what they are getting. Scientists and nations around the world recognize this. But where and how Americans' food is raised too often remains hidden. We should enjoy the basic right to know.

Paul D. Johnson, an organic-market gardener and a family-farm legislative advocate for several churches in Kansas, is a member of the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, in Salina, Kansas.

2.Minority report on hormone food risks
PRESS RELEASE:  3rd July 2006
Further information: Tom MacMillan on 07973 137185.

The independent Food Ethics Council [1] has today made publicly available a minority report [2] by one member of an official expert committee that looked into the safety of hormones in beef.

According to reports this morning by the BBC and the Daily Mail, Defra is soon expected to publish a long-awaited review by the Veterinary Products Committee (VPC) of 'Risks associated with the use of hormonal substances in food-producing animals’.[3] The minority report highlights additional evidence on potential cancer risks left out of the VPC’s review. The Food Ethics Council has agreed to make the minority report available through its website after the VPC broke with accepted good practice by opting not to publish the dissenting view. The VPC's decision is contrary to the UK government's Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees, which states that "any significant diversity of opinion among the members of the committee should be accurately reflected in the report".[4]

John Verrall, a member of the VPC and of the sub-group that wrote the official report, argues in his minority report that the committee did not consider relevant scientific evidence to support concern that even very low-level exposure to hormones used in beef production could cause cancer in humans.[5] Nevertheless, according to Verrall, the key message to take from the official report is caution, since it documents considerable scientific uncertainty over whether it is safe to eat hormone-treated meat. His concern is that the level of scientific uncertainty and the need for caution that it implies are both downplayed in the summary of the official report – the only part most people will read – which states that hormone residues in food "would not be sufficient to induce any measurable physiological effect".

All the hormones reviewed in the report are banned from EU farming on safety grounds but they are used in the USA, Canada and other countries. The EU has been under pressure from the World Trade Organisation to lift its ban, and it pays about 120 million US dollars per year in compensation to countries that export beef produced using hormones. The report is crucial because it comes at a moment when the EU is challenging the WTO to lift that fine, on the basis of new scientific evidence.

"The VPC report supports the EU position that these hormones should not be used in meat production because it underlines the considerable doubt that exists over their safety," says Dr Tom MacMillan, Executive Director of the Food Ethics Council. "But Verrall's report is important because experience shows that the detail really matters in WTO disputes the outcome can hinge on how a report like this is interpreted, so there is no room for ambiguity. It would be tragic if some EU countries continued to pay millions of dollars in wrong-headed fines or, worse still, public safety was compromised, just because the experts overlooked recent evidence or chose their words poorly."

The Food Ethics Council calls on the government to reassure consumers by:

- Stating clearly in public that the government understands the key message of the expert report, which is that the use of hormones in beef production may pose risks to consumers.

- Supporting the EU challenge against the WTO's punitive fines.

- Commissioning an independent review of all expert advisory committees to ensure that they follow best practice on communicating minority views and scientific uncertainty, in reality and not just on paper.

John Verrall is a member of the Food Ethics Council. However, it is in a personal capacity that he wrote the minority report and that he serves on the VPC.

For further information and interviews contact Tom MacMillan on 07973 137185.


1. The Food Ethics Council is an independent champion for better food and farming. We challenge government, business and the public to tackle problems ethically, providing research, analysis and tools to help. For more information visit www.foodethicscouncil.org.

2. The minority report is available at www.foodethicscouncil.org/files/verrallreport.pdf. The report was initially intended by the author to be appended to the official report and it is published here in the draft form in which it was submitted to the VPC for consideration.

3. The Veterinary Products Committee is a scientific committee that advises the government on the use of veterinary drugs, including in farming. The Veterinary Medicines Directorate, an executive agency of the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), provides the secretariat for the committee. In 2002, the committee established a Working Group on the Review of Hormones. The Working Group's brief was to evaluate the latest statement warning against the use of hormones in meat production from the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Veterinary measures relating to Public Health.

A draft version of the official VPC report is available at www.vpc.gov.uk/comments/report.pdf.

4. The Code of Practice is available at www.ost.gov.uk/policy/advice/copsac/index.htm. The same paragraph (64), in full, states:

"Committees should not seek unanimity at the risk of failing to recognise different views on a subject. These might be recorded as a range of views, possibly published as an addendum to the main report. However, any significant diversity of opinion among the members of the committee should be accurately reflected in the report."

In addition, the Code of Practice emphasises the need for committees to take special care in interpreting and communicating uncertainty. It quotes the BSE Inquiry Report (Vol 1, para 1275): "An advisory committee should not water down its formulated assessment of risk out of anxiety not to cause public alarm."

5. Verrall's minority report highlights relevant papers and statements by expert bodies that are not considered in the official report. In addition, since his minority report was drafted, further analysis of potential risks associated with low-level exposure to hormones used in meat production has been published by the University Department of Growth and Reproduction, Rigshospitalet, Copenhagen, Denmark, which under Professor Niels E. Skakkebæk is a recognised world authority on the subject. By kind permission of the authors, Human Reproduction Update and Oxford University Press, the article is reproduced on our website at www.foodethicscouncil.org/files/oestrogenarticle.pdf. The article states:

"The question of possible effects of sex steroid exposure of children is extremely relevant, as we have been unable to find good evidence of a safe margin for exposure of children to sex hormones added to food products. Previous calculations seem to be based on flawed assumptions." (p.6)

"Because no lower threshold for estrogenic action has been established, caution should be taken to avoid unnecessary exposure of fetuses and children to exogenous sex steroids and endocrine disruptors, even at very low levels." (p.1)

The Food Ethics Council, 39 41 Surrey Street, Brighton BN1 3PB United Kingdom
t: 01273 766 654 f: 01273 766 653
[email protected]


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