By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Oh for the days when all we had to worry about was a little pesticide residue on our apples. This past week brought two reminders that what we don’t know is in our food can hurt us.

The peanut butter snack recalls continued flying off the conveyor belt, noteworthy for the sheer number of products potentially tainted with salmonella — more than 400 at last count. All that contamination from one little ole peanut processing plant in Georgia. Best to heed the advice of the Food and Drug Administration’s Dr. Stephen Sundlof, “If you don’t know the source of the food that contains peanuts, don’t eat it.” At the same time, the FDA has declared that “national name brand peanut butter” sold in jars at retail has not been contaminated.

We also learned last week that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), that controversial, cheap and ubiquitous sweetener might contain more than just the empty calories blamed for our flourishing flab. A study by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) reported finding traces of mercury in 17 of 55 tested foods made with HFCS.

How’d it get there? Researchers blamed HFCS factories that employ an outdated process involving mercury.

The FDA said the mercury was not a problem because the study measured total mercury and didn’t break out methylmercury, the form found in fish and absorbed by the human body, from other forms not so easily absorbed.

Furthermore, the findings show miniscule amounts, a few parts per trillion (ppt) — akin to a drop in 20 Olympic-size swimming pools, according to one report in the Minneapolis StarTribune.

But the researchers, from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, defended their work, reported in Not So Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup. They say that mercury is so toxic, even trace amounts should not be tolerated in foods, and that the government should push the factories still using mercury to modernize.

Most U.S. HFCS plants, some 90 percent, use a non-mercury process, noted lead researcher Dr. David Wallinga, which shows that mercury contamination is avoidable. But four plants in the U.S. and many more around the globe use mercury in the production caustic soda, which is then used to make HFCS. (The “missing mercury” of the study’s title refers to mercury that cannot be accounted at HFCS plants, indicating it must be seeping into the HFCS and/or the environment. A second, peer-reviewed study released this week had tested the HFCS itself and found several samples to be tainted with mercury.)

The list of 17 food items that tested positive for mercury – albeit tiny amounts – is distressing.

It includes many foods you’ve come to love and trust, like Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup, Hunt’s Tomato Ketchup, Manwich Gold Sloppy Joe,  Nutri-Grain Strawberry Cereal Bars and Frosted Blueberry Pop Tarts (we always knew those were of dubious nutritional value, but this is ridiculous).

Wallinga told us that he doesn’t blame the food producers because they, like the public, probably didn’t realize that the HFCS was tainted with mercury.

Food manufacturers responded to the study with skepticism, questioning whether the minute amounts of mercury found merited concern. Con-Agra, maker of the ketchup, said consumers issued a statement saying consumers would have to eat “more than 100 pounds of ketchup each day” to exceed the government’s threshold for unsafe exposure.

Still, Wallinga thinks consumers should call manufacturers of the mercury-containing foods to ask about their HFCS suppliers. “You should be worried that we’re finding it in food, even at these levels, because mercury is so toxic and because we eat so much high fructose corn syrup. I mean one in 10 calories in the U.S. (consumed are from HFCS),” he said.

Even if the implicated HFCS foods turn out to be quite safe — and their makers insist they are — the mercury study, coming on the heels of the peanut butter debacle, surely shows that we need more transparency, modernization and oversight of our big industrialized food chain.

Copyright © 2009 Green Right Now | Distributed by Noofangle Media