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3-plus years of silence a new low for even the FDA

Submitted by on Wednesday, 28 January 2009 No Comment

Food and Drug Administration to-do list for Tuesday:

  • Write news release about the dangers of Venom Hyperdrive 3.0, a diet drug that contains a controlled substance.
  • Add five company statements to the list of products recalled as part of the peanut butter-salmonella problem. No hurry on this one, though. Some statements already are four days old, so get to it when you get to it.
  • Respond to former FDA scientist Renee Dufault’s claims that testing she did three years ago showed troubling levels of mercury in food containing high fructose corn syrup.

Aw, strike that last one. Why bother responding when we’ve never looked into the original claim?

Suddenly, a cryptic Wall Street Journal article earlier this month makes sense. The story said nine FDA scientists had written President Barack Obama’s transition team, pleading with officials to appoint a director who would end an atmosphere filled with intimidation, coercion and outright manipulation of data.

The nine mainly were concerned with procedures for approving medical devices. It appears now that the problem goes beyond that division.

It’s tragic bordering on criminal that appearances are all we have to go on.

High fructose corn syrup, a cheaper-than-sugar sweetener the food industry loves, is in dang near everything. Pull four boxes at random from your cupboard and it likely will be listed as an ingredient in at least three. If  you have kids, it will be in all four.

Because the body metabolizes high fructose differently from the way it handles real sugar, there is some concern that high fructose corn syrup contributes to the obesity epidemic. Other research indicates that’s not true, though some of it was sponsored by the high fructose corn syrup-loving beverage industry.

So why are Foot Dragging Administration officials still silent on this very serious accusation?

Officials can’t claim the scientist is a crackpot. The study, which is to appear in a coming edition of Environmental Health, has been peer-reviewed. An independent laboratory verified the original work in 2005.

They can’t claim they’re not aware of the cumulative effects of contaminants spread across several foods. They evaluate that themselves in the Total Diet Study.

So is Dufault’s original report, which urged further study of mercury and high fructose corn syrup, dotted with coffee-cup rings at the bottom of someone’s “when I get around to it” pile? Maybe FDA officials can’t get past the glow of their love for high fructose corn syrup, which they even call “natural” with a straight face, to see the type on the pages.

Fortunately a private group took up where the FDA slacked off, testing 55 popular brands and finding mercury in nearly a third of them. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy released its report Tuesday, too, to coincide with the scientists’ journal article.

The list is frighteningly kid friendly: cereal bars, oatmeal and chocolate syrup. Who needs Chinese melamine when we have good old American mercury?

The thing is, we still don’t know if there’s a reason to be frightened. Dufault and the other scientists who worked on Tuesday’s report aren’t ready to say that there is, but they’re pleading for more study. As if that got Dufault anywhere three years ago.

What we do know, according to the Dufault study:

  • The scientists found up to 0.57 micrograms of mercury in some foods. The average person consumes 49.8 grams of high fructose corn syrup a day, so that could be exposure of up to 28.4 micrograms of mercury.
  • The FDA action level for mercury in fish is 1 microgram.
  • Prenatal exposure as low as 10 micrograms can harm the fetus.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics says any childhood exposure to mercury could be minimized.

Sounds pretty damning, but here’s the problem:  Caustic soda is used to process corn into high fructose corn syrup. One method of producing the soda uses mercury, one does not. Chances are, even manufacturers don’t know which type they’re using. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is second only to “proprietary information” among manufacturers’ reasons for not creating accurate ingredient lists.

Clearly, though, at least some are using mercury-made caustic soda. And clearly, the mercury is making it to grocery stores and breakfast tables.

President Barack Obama’s pick to head the FDA likely is some months off. One of the first things he or she should do is find Dufault’s coffee-stained report and get serious about looking into it.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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