Labels and other ‘Krafty’ Stuff #mythbusting101

I am a huge fan Kraft Mac n’ Cheese (AKA ‘KD’). When I was young, broke and living on my own, it was a food ‘staple’.  As a household, now, we probably consume only about 6 boxes per year. Times change.  But KD doesn’t. I find that it still ‘hits the spot’ sometimes. 

The other day, I saw a photo like this circulating on Pinterest with the headline “WARNING: look at what’s in your Kraft Mac n’ Cheese! 

Source: Food Babe

Source: Food Babe

When I first saw the label, I thought it was total bunk; garbage. My judgement was based not only on the label content but also on what appeared to me to be a rather ‘amateurish’ label design. Hey, it was a fair assumption. I mean, how hard could it be to stop at Staples, pick up a pack of Avery labels and design/print labels with deceptive information? In terms of content, a first clue was that “macaroni” was spelled incorrectly (as “macroni”). The other red flag for me was the label’s “GMO declaration” – “made from genetically modified wheat.” WHAT?!? (I’ll get to the ‘wheat’ thing later).

Fig. 3

photo taken by colleague in London, May 31, 2013

After a bit of social media scanning, I found out that this label was on a package of KD that was imported from the US to the United Kingdom (UK).  As I was not familiar with import and labeling regulations in the UK, I launched into several hours of research – scouring regulatory documents and scanning the websites of UK importers.  Not to mention, I exchanged a flurry of emails with colleagues who are more ‘in the know’ about such things. I even managed to score a photo of another labeled box of KD from a colleague in London (below).

First, I wanted to compare what I knew to be a legitimate label on a package of KD (above, purchased by a trusted colleague) with one that had been circulating on social media. Summary below:

KD labels side by side

Photo of Label 1 sourced from Food Babe

Label 1: As far as I can tell, the photo of this label was introduced to the Internet via the Food Babe website. The date that this particular box of KD was originally purchased is unknown. But Food Babe did publish another photo of a package of KD yesterday that appears to have the same format and content as the one pictured above. The photo also included the May 31, 2013 issue of The Times of London as a ‘time stamp’ (the photo was taken at a Tesco location in North London).  The product importer was Innovative Bites Ltd.

Label 2: Photographed by a colleague on May 31, 2013, this label was on a package of KD that he purchased at a local Tesco retailer in London.  The product importer was PS Foods Limited.

Note the differences. To illustrate these differences, I pulled together a table that outlines what is and isn’t included on the respective labels.

table KD

Allergen Information: Regulatory bodies in many countries in the world have labelling requirements for specific priority allergens (plus gluten sources / added sulphites) in foods (Canada, US, EU). Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 (both of which are food dyes in KD’s dry cheese powder) are known in the EU as Tartrazine (E102), and Sunset Yellow (E110) respectively. In a 2007 study, commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency, hyperactivity in children was linked to artificial colorings and a food preservative. This prompted the European Parliament to pass a law in July 2008 requiring products containing food dyes in Europe to carry the warning “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children” (as shown on Label 1, absent on Label 2).

GMOs: The EU (including the UK) has a very different political and regulatory approach to genetically engineered crops and GMOs than we do in North America. While mandatory labelling of GMOs isn’t required here in Canada (or the US), the European Commission requires that pre-packaged products consisting of or containing GMOs have labels that indicate so. As much as 70% of food in our grocery stores in North America is made with genetically modified ingredients (soy, canola, corn). Therefore an importer of a prepackaged product from the US (as in this case) may include “may contain GMOs” on the label for no other reason than to cover their butts.

But here’s the real kicker about Label 1.  Label 1 states – definitively – that the product is “made from genetically modified wheat.” There has never been a genetically engineered wheat on the market.  Never. Not anywhere in the world. So, even if Kraft wanted to make its product(s) with GE wheat, it couldn’t. The information on Label 1 is inaccurate and grossly misleading.

Ingredients: I couldn’t find a (credible, regulatory) document that outlined protocols for labeling imported prepackaged food in the UK. So, I will pose some possible reasons for why one of these labels had ingredients and the other didn’t.

Maybe it depends on the placement of the label.  Label 2 was placed on the upper part of the side of the box.  The (US) factory printed ingredient list was near the bottom so it wasn’t obscured. Maybe that’s why the ingredient list didn’t need to be repeated on the label.  As for the other product (Label 1), it wasn’t photographed in full so I don’t really know where the label was placed.  One thing that would justify a list of ingredients beyond the factory printed list (as in Label 1) would be a clarification of ingredients.  You will recall earlier that I mentioned that the food dyes in KD’s dry cheese powder are referred to differently in the UK (EU) than they are in North America. Including an edited ingredients list would be useful (and informative) in this case. (Related: see Rob Wallbridge’s post on his blog The Fanning Mill where he talks about interpretation and meaning of (ag-based) words in different parts of the world).

Note: ‘Best Before’ dates are included on Label 1 but not on Label 2.

Is safety an issue? In a word, NO.

Food dyes: Both Yellow 5 (Tartrazine (E102)) and Yellow 6 and (Sunset Yellow (E110)) have safety approval in the US (USDA/FDA), the EU (EFSA) and other jurisdictions in the world. A panel of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) experts met with the center for Science in the Public Interest in 2011 to consider relevant data on the possible association between artificial food colors and hyperactivity in children. Based upon the available evidence, the panel ruled that a causal link between food dyes and ADHD has not been established.  They did, however, suggest that more research needed to be done.  These food dyes (and Kraft) are still under fire. There are lobbying efforts underway to push the company to remove these additives from their product lines.

GM Wheat:  No GE wheat varieties have been approved for commercial production in the United States or elsewhere in the world. Monsanto, however, was authorized to field test glyphosate tolerant wheat in 16 states from 1998 to 2005.  Recently, glyphosate tolerant wheat was discovered in an Oregon field.  APHIS has launched an official investigation (press release here). Check out the post at Biofortified “Get the scoop on GMO wheat in Oregon.” Karl Haro von Mogel provides some great links to resources there.

Needless to say, this recent discovery, in combination with the Kraft label issue, only serves to fuel the fire of controversy and raises questions about the safety of GE wheat. But the FDA reviewed this glyphosate tolerant wheat back in 2004 and determined it that there was no food safety risk associated with the crop variety.

So, what SHOULD we be concerned about? 

MISL LABELS

The EU watchdog must be asleep. It appears that different UK importers (in this case, Innovative Bites Ltd (UK) and PS Foods Limited) attach different labels to meet requirements. More problematic, however, are the gross errors in labeling; from simple spelling errors, to omissions, to completely inaccurate information. The lack of consistency in content, format and structure of label information creates uncertainty and confusion. This does little to incite product confidence for the consumer. Another unfortunate by-product of this kind of ‘fuzzy’ labeling is that it provides the perfect opportunity for the ‘food police’ (a la Jayson Lusk) and the anti-GM movement to move in and work their own kind of ‘craft’. They can quickly spin stories (such as here and here) to further sway public opinion through misleading information.

As a consumer I want nutritional and other information about the food that I buy. But I want accurate and meaningful information.  Don’t you?

UPDATES HERE

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“Crowd-sourced Mythbusting” is a great thing! Please weigh in on the topic and share your knowledge, thoughts and opinion!

Mythbusting 101: “Don’t say it – spray it”

In my bio, I claim to be a ‘mythbuster’ of sorts.  I like to clear up misconceptions about agriculture and food production. It amazes me what kind of nonsensical information gets circulated and how readily some people believe it.

Today is the first in my series entitled “Mythbusting 101.” I was inspired by a discussion on Facebook that centred around one particular photo.  Brian Scott (The Farmer’s Life) circulated the photo with the comment: “I hate out-of-context garbage like this. Especially when I see how many people *like* and *share* these things. There is absolutely no context given as to what is going on here.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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Mythbusting 101: When you see pictures and words combined like this, channel your inner skeptic. This photo is grossly misleading (and this is just one example of many that are out there).

Although we can’t find the original source of the photo (it was posted on FB through Anti-Media), we are certain that this guy is not spraying water. He is spraying a pesticide. Labels on pesticides provide instructions on how to SAFELY apply these products (including ORGANIC approved pesticide products as they are toxic too). This ‘gear’ is standard protocol when administering any pesticides to crops (organic or otherwise). And… this photo has NOTHING to do with GMO foods, or labeling for that matter. In fact, this man appears to be spraying flowers or nursery stock of some kind.

A photo with the accompanying text like this is an example of what I call ‘misinformation in action’. Someone (a ‘myth-monger’ as I refer to them) is intentionally (sometimes unintentionally) misleading people.

We need to think critically about how food makes it from the field to our plate. Food is a very personal thing. That means that we need to also think critically about what we see and read about ag and food production. We should ensure that we are interpreting the information correctly and that the information *we* share with others is accurate.

If you are not sure, ask someone. Ask a farmer. Ask Brian. And make sure to check out the comments below. I was delighted to have others weigh in with their opinions on this matter.  I like to call this ‘crowd-sourced mythbusting.’ :O)

Infecting through misinformation…a new kind of communication pathogen?

August 21, 2011

Yesterday morning, Michael Olson (host of Food Chain Radio) interviewed Dr. Don Huber.  If you are not familiar with who Dr.Huber is, I will give you a little background.

Dr. Don Huber is Professor Emeritus from Purdue University. He is (was) a soil pathologist by training and appears to have had a fairly unremarkable career affiliated with a remarkable department at a world reknowned university (a quick search of ISI Web of Knowledge this morning netted Dr. Don M. Huber only a couple of dozen peer-reviewed co-authored articles published between the 1960s and 2010 most, of which, had relatively low citation rates) [UPDATE: ISI WoK is probably not the best source for searching scientific publications, hence low numbers of reported pubs by Huber. A quick search of PubMed returned a larger number of articles]. Earlier this year, Dr. Huber scripted a letter to Secretary Vilsack warning him (and the USDA) of a pathogen that appeared to have profound implications for animal fertility and plant mortality. He linked this pathogen to a synthetic herbicide.

In theory, sounding this kind of alarm should be a good thing. However, Dr. Huber has absolutely NO peer-reviewed science backing his allegations of the connection between the so-called pathogen and synthetic herbicide. This is where the danger lies. I have followed this story for quite some time so I listened intently to Olson’s interview and Huber’s responses.

The most telling part of the interview was what Huber DIDN’T say.  When asked about who pays/backs him, he responded by reviewing his history of research (academic life at Purdue). When asked about the scientific processes that purportedly support his allegations, Huber reverts back to why he sent Vilsack the letter in the first place. He never responds to Olson’s questions directly. In fact, he subverts them. Also, there are no references to peer-reviewed research/science to support Huber’s claims. This link that Huber alleges exists between this ‘pathogen’ and synthetic herbicides is extremely weak and based primarily on conjecture.  Again, this is dangerous.

Why is this dangerous? Science is a process or method that has been established over the past few centuries. Science brings to bear with it certain key protocols.  One of these is the ‘peer review’ process that demands science be replicable and reviewed by a body of peers prior to publication. Peer-review is a ‘checks and balances’ system that is intended to bring good science and its ‘value-add’ to society in a responsible manner with accountability measures built in (search “peer review” on my blog). If these science-based protocols are ignored or poorly executed, then non-peer reviewed science – even “bad” science – can make it into mainstream spaces. Circulating unchecked, through the use of technology and social media tools, ‘bad’ science can become a social ‘pathogen’ in and of itself; infecting through misinformation.

In light of the Huber interview, I took it upon myself to do a bit more sleuthing. The thing that was nagging at me was: Who is behind Huber’s efforts here? I mean, there must be some kind of (other) agenda pushing him along? Right?

My investigation lead me to this. One potential backer is likely to be the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance. They sport Huber’s cv on their site. This organization is closely aligned with the Weston A. Price Foundation and several other organizations that are “anti-GMO” in terms of their mandates/philosophies. Another key collaborator for Huber appears to be Jeffrey Smith (anti-GMO advocate, author of “Seeds of Deception” and part-time yogic-flyer). Huber’s allegations were formally endorsed and circulated by Jeffrey Smith as early as January this year, long before Huber’s letter ever made it into Vilsack’s hands (see: http://pollyheilmealey.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/monsanto-is-at-it-again-jeffrey-smith-used-by-permission/). According to this aforementioned posting (and others), it would appear that Jeffrey and Don (Huber) are on a first name basis. In his blog post on the Institute for Responsible Technology, it appears that Smith also had access to Huber’s photos: http://www.responsibletechnology.org/blog/664. This suggests that a very close relationship has and is being cultivated between Smith and Huber.

Here’s my two cents on all this.  Assuming that Huber is funded through an NGO or the like, I think that they should re-think him as their poster-boy.  Based upon what I heard in this morning’s interview, Huber lacks the PR saavy to carry out the ‘sell’ of bad science or ‘allegations without evidence’. Also, if a funding agent is trying to leverage reputational value out of Huber in his role/career as a scientist, they should re-think their strategy. One comment on the Food Chain Radio Show’s forum was:

“I’ve spoken with people in Huber’s previous department and they are really quite embarrassed about this individual. He does not provide data or anything you would normally use to validate claims. He hasn’t really worked in the lab for years. No one is quite sure of his agenda, but he has no credibility in scientific or ag circles.”

In closing, I think that Michael Olson handled the interview with Huber very well (I admit it, I was skeptical at first).  He obviously prepared ahead of time and asked good, relevant, relatively non-sensationalized questions. Adding to that, I think that the call-in speakers on the show brought to light the problems with the lack of ‘science’ or science-based protocols in this über-(dare I say “Huber”)mess. This, combined with Huber’s clear lack of charisma (J.Smith is way better at this (note: this is not an endorsement)) and his inability to communicate science in ‘lay’ terms (forget all the inaccuracies), will ensure that this ‘science-communication pathogen’ will not infect the public and its perceptions.

Hopefully.

For more excellent ‘sleuthiness’ on the science of the whole ‘Huber’ deal, check out Anastasia Bodnar’s posting on the Biofortified site: “Extraordinary claims…require extraordinary evidence.” http://www.biofortified.org/2011/02/extraordinary-claims/

Note: thanks to my colleagues for their input/insights on this entry.

Responses to Huber’s allegations: http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/Pages/huber-pathogen-roundup-ready-crops.aspx

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POSTSCRIPT #1: September 10, 2011

Postscript to this… see blog entry on “cred” and Huber by S.D. Savage on his blog Applied Mythology (August 21, 2011 http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com/2011/08/some-thoughts-about-cred-and-don-huber.html) were he states:

“…because he [Huber] is saying that something terrible is happening that can be blamed on Monsanto and GMO technology, he has automatic credibility with certain constituencies….I wish I had a good term for this particular class of cred that comes from telling a particular audience what it wants to believe about some entity that it has elevated to an evil status of mythic proportions.  The best term I could find applies to the audience more than to the speaker: Credulous: ready to believe, especially on slight or uncertain evidence.”

POST SCRIPT #2: January 1, 2012

And yet another postscript… A study just came out in the December issue of the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health by Williams et a:

According to the authors, “the available literature shows no solid evidence linking glyphosate exposure to adverse developmental or reproductive effects at environmentally realistic exposure concentrations.”

Link to article: http://www.ask-force.org/web/HerbizideTol/Williams-DeSesso-Developmental-Glyphosate-2011.pdf

good science over misinformation – – – a new website to check out!

Academics Review – good science over misinformation

A new website has been started to examine claims against GM foods by Jeffrey Smith (author of Seeds of Deception). Academics Review was founded by Bruce Chassy, Ph.D (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and Dr. David Tribe, Ph. D. (University of Melbourne, Australia). Their news release highlights the “point-by-point scientific analysis of Smith’s claims” available on their website. It’s an impressive, well-organized and easily understood rebuttal by the two experts.

Thanks to AgBioWorld for highlighting the news release in it’s AgBioView email-newsletter (March 24, 2010) – if you don’t subscribe already to their email, you should. Sign up for it through Academics Review *http://academicsreview.org/*