GMO Labeling Update

Tom Philpott’s regular column in Mother Jones is always informative and often provocative. I don’t always agree with his views but I read him regularly.

His latest piece is on the potential national implications of a new Vermont law that mandates labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). For those of us who favor GMO labeling, this is essential reading.

The entire article is well worth 5-10 minutes of your time. Here’s an excerpt:

In the years since, the GMA [Grocery Manufacturers Association] has hotly promoted the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, known by critics as the “Deny Americans the Right to Know” (DARK) Act, which would nullify all state GMO labeling laws. The House passed such a bill in July 2015, and supporters tried and ultimately failed to push a similar provision into an omnibus spending bill at year-end.

It has yet to make it through the Senate, but now the chair of the legislative body’s agriculture committee, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), is making a major push. In hopes of averting what he called the “wrecking ball” of Vermont’s labeling statute, Roberts—a major recipient of agribusiness campaign fundspushed a bill through the Senate ag committee on March 1 that forbids state GMO labeling requirements. GMA vigorously supports Roberts’ bill, but it remains in limbo. To force a vote on the Senate floor, he’ll need 60 votes, and so far he doesn’t have them.

Meanwhile, a group of Democrats led by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) are pushing a rival bill that would require GMO labeling everywhere—essentially, taking the Vermont law nationwide. Food giant Campbell’s, which has broken ranks with the broader industry on this topic and favors GMO labeling, supports the Merkley bill. Yet it, too, currently lacks the votes to win passage.

This week, USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has stepped into the stalemate, pushing a compromise in a speech before the National Farmers union: Rather than mandatory labeling, he’s pushing mandatory “disclosure,” wherein food companies are required to disclose GMO ingredients to interested consumers, but not on the label. In Vilsack’s vision, mandatory disclosure could take the form of an 800 number on the label that consumers can call for info on GMO ingredients, or a QR code that can be read by smartphones. “Vilsack has said that President Barack Obama would sign such a bill,” reports the trade journal Hoosier Ag Today.

There’s much to unpack here, but from my perspective the most significant informational nugget is that Campbell’s has broken with its GMA brethren. Campbell’s could be an outlier or this could represent a leading indicator of a shifting political environment.

 

 

On the Collapsing Health and Premature Deaths of Poorly Educated American Whites

This article has the most stunning health statistics I’ve seen in years. The documentation appears irrefutable; the research bears the signature the most recent Nobel economics laureate.

The author of this American Prospect article is Paul Starr, author of the classic book, The Social Transformation of American Medicine. Starr is a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University and Stuart Professor of communications and public affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. He’s a writer whose insightful work I have admired for decades. One of Starr’s great strengths is his ability to contextualize the socio-political implications of data.

To wit:

In a reversal of earlier trends, death rates among white non-Hispanic Americans in midlife increased sharply between 1999 and 2013, according to a new study by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, winner last month of the Nobel Prize for economics. The increased deaths were concentrated among those with the least education and resulted largely from drug and alcohol “poisonings,” suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis. This midlife mortality reversal had no parallel in any other industrialized society or in other demographic groups in the United States.

Case and Deaton’s analysis, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also shows increased rates of illness, chronic pain, and disability among middle-aged whites. The findings have important implications for American politics and public policy, particularly for debates about economic inequality, public health, drug policy, disability insurance, and retirement income. The data also suggest why much of American politics may be taking on an increasingly harsh and desperate quality.

The recent divergence in death rates between the United States and other rich countries is striking. Between 1979 and 1999, Case and Deaton show, mortality for white Americans ages 45 to 54 had declined at nearly 2 percent per year. That was about the same as the average rate of decline in mortality for all people the same age in such countries as France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Sweden. (See figure below.) After 1999, the 2 percent annual decline continued in other industrialized countries and for Hispanics in the United States, but the death rate for middle-aged white non-Hispanic Americans turned around and began rising half a percent a year.

This, as yesterday’s gubernatorial election results in Kentucky have set the stage for the Governor-elect Bevin’s promised elimination of Medicaid expansion in that heart-of-Appalachia state. 400,000 stand to lose their insurance coverage.

Read it and weep …

World Health Organization Classifies Processed Meats as Carcinogens

While this conclusion will come as no surprise to those who have been following the science on this subject over the past decade, the headlines it is now generating may sway some people change their diets.

 

The key quote:

“Processed meat now falls into “group 1,” meaning it ranks as high as tobacco smoking, the most dangerous variants of human papillomavirus (HPV) and asbestos exposure in terms of causing cancer. Red meat lands in “group 2A” with inorganic lead.

My Return to Health Blogging

This is my first post here in a year and a half. The reason is that in the interim, I’ve moved from Kansas to Portland, Oregon, to take a position as director of the Master of Science in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine program at the University of Western States. This has been a very satisfying and exceptionally busy period for me.

I look forward to commenting on health news here on a regular basis once again.

Thanks to everyone who has urged me to return to writing on a regular basis. Since we’ve just hired an excellent Associate Director for my program, it looks like I’ll be able to do that.

World Health Organization Warns of a Post-Antibiotic Era

When I was ten, my life was saved by antibiotics when I had pneumonia and pleurisy simultaneously. So this story has personal resonance for me.

It’s worth noting that 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are used as a routine part of raising animals for meat, dairy, and eggs, on factory farms and other non-organic agricultural operations. That’s where the problem most urgently needs to be addressed. The private sector isn’t doing anything about it, which means it will require regulatory action at the federal level. The sooner the better.

The ‘post-antibiotic’ era is near, according to a report released today by the World Health Organization (WHO). The decreasing effectiveness of antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents is a global problem, and a surveillance system should be established to monitor it, the group says.

There is nothing hopeful in the WHO’s report, which pulls together data from 129 member states to show extensive resistance to antimicrobial agents in every region of the world. Overuse of antibiotics in agriculture — to promote livestock growth — and in hospitals quickly leads to proliferation of drug-resistant bacteria, which then spread via human travel and poor sanitation practices.

“A post-antibiotic era — in which common infections and minor injuries can kill — far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the twenty-first century,” writes Keiji Fukuda, WHO assistant director-general for health security, in a foreword to the report.

Perhaps the most worrying trend is the spread of resistance to carbapenems, the ‘antibiotics of last resort’, says Timothy Walsh, a medical microbiologist at Cardiff University, UK, who was an adviser for the report. “That’s taken us by surprise,” he says. “All of us are rather like rabbits in front of the headlights in how quickly this has taken off.”

 

Pesticides and the Collapse of Bee Colonies

The alarming collapse of the bee population in many areas appears to be due to a widely used class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Should this be allowed to continue, it has the potential to wreak havoc on the world’s food supply, much of which is dependent on bees for pollination. No small thing.

At first, there had been concern that electromagnetic waves from increasingly ubiquitous cell phones might be the cause, or reduced resistance to mites or parasites, research failed to document a strong link. But with neonicotinoids, the evidence is now strong to the point of damning.

From the Harvard School of Public Health:

Two widely used neonicotinoids—a class of insecticide—appear to significantly harm honey bee colonies over the winter, particularly during colder winters, according to a new study from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). The study replicated a 2012 finding from the same research group that found a link between low doses of imidacloprid and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), in which bees abandon their hives over the winter and eventually die. The new study also found that low doses of a second neonicotinoid, clothianidin, had the same negative effect.

Further, although other studies have suggested that CCD-related mortality in honey bee colonies may come from bees’ reduced resistance to mites or parasites as a result of exposure to pesticides, the new study found that bees in the hives exhibiting CCD had almost identical levels of pathogen infestation as a group of control hives, most of which survived the winter. This finding suggests that the neonicotinoids are causing some other kind of biological mechanism in bees that in turn leads to CCD.

Resveratrol: Another Assumption Called Into Question

It’s tempting to do so, but whenever we attribute large health benefits (such as prevention of heart disease) to a single nutrient, the complexity of our physiology eventually calls the assumption into question.

Resveratrol, a substance found in the skins of red grapes, has become quite famous in recent years as the purported explanation for the apparent health benefits of moderate amounts of red wine. New research indicates that this assumption may be premature, and perhaps entirely mistaken.

From WebMD:

Resveratrol — a substance found in red wine, grapes and chocolate — may not add years to your life, and it doesn’t appear to reduce the risk for heart disease or cancer either, according to new research.

“When it comes to diet, health and aging, things are not simple and probably do not boil down to one single substance, such as resveratrol,” said study lead researcher Dr. Richard Semba, a professor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

The findings also cast doubt about taking resveratrol supplements, he said.

“Perhaps it brings us back again to rather tried and true advice of diet — Mediterranean-style — and regular aerobic exercise for healthy aging,” said Semba.

The report was published May 12 in the online edition of JAMA Internal Medicine.

Red wine and chocolate have been shown to have beneficial effects on health, and these benefits were attributed largely to a single substance — resveratrol. Resveratrol has been credited as being responsible for the so-called “French paradox,” in which even a diet high in cholesterol and fat can be healthy if it is accompanied with red wine, the researchers explained