2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 12,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

BPA opinion is nigh

BPA can be found in cans and plastic bottles

BPA can be found in cans and plastic bottles contributing to oral exposure.

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical used in plastic bottles and inner coating of beverage cans, and its exposure is almost ubiquitous. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has previously reviewed the use of BPA in food contact materials four times. It has now reviewed BPA for the fifth time and has at last settled on a final version of the new BPA opinion. But we don’t yet know what the EFSA Panel has decided since the opinion is undergoing final editorial work and will not be published until sometime in January 2015.

From the initial draft we know that EFSA believes that exposure to BPA is likely to adversely affect the kidney, liver and mammary glands and possibly also the reproductive, nervous, immune, metabolic and cardiovascular systems. It might also pose a risk for development of cancer.

Quite a list of negative effects you would think. But only at very high exposure levels, EFSA said.

Reduced tolerable levels proposed

To be brave EFSA proposes that the tolerable daily intake of BPA should be reduced to 5 µg/kg bodyweight from previously 50 µg/kg bodyweight. This allows EFSA to claim that the health risk for any population group is low. It is because the highest estimates for combined oral and non-oral exposure to BPA now would be 3-5 times lower than the proposed limit, depending on the age group.

Not everyone agreed with the EFSA view as evidenced by stakeholders submitting almost 500 comments during online public consultations of the draft opinion. Comments were received from a broad range of interested parties including NGOs, members of the public, academia, national food safety agencies and the food industry ranging from positive to negative. Predictably, industry thought that the draft opinion went too far, while some NGOs wanted an outright ban.

So a good compromise you would think. Not so sure.

The Americans and the French at opposing ends

The Americans are relaxed as usual. Just days before the adoption of the EFSA opinion, the Food and Drug Administration issued a statement saying that BPA is safe at current levels. The FDA said its verdict was based on a four-year review of more than 300 scientific studies. However, it mentioned three ongoing safety assessments and said that the agency might revise its conclusions pending their findings. A bit of hedging there.

But what about the food-loving French? Well, the French are not so sure that EFSA is right and has actually banned BPA from all packaging, containers, and utensils intended to be used in direct contact with food from 1 January 2015. Health issues potentially caused by BPA are thus taken much more seriously by the French Government. However, reasonably, there seems to be an allowance exempting packages introduced onto the market before this date to remain until stock is exhausted.

So what is a simple soul to believe? Just following the literature introduces further doubts.

Thermal receipts can contain high levels of BPA.

Thermal receipts can contain high levels of BPA contributing to dermal exposure.

New research findings

It is well-known that BPA is applied to the outer layer of thermal receipt paper as a print developer and can be present in very high quantities of around 20 mg BPA/g paper. Although EFSA’s assessment indeed did include exposure from thermal receipts, a recently published study showed that using hand sanitisers or other skin care products often containing mixtures of dermal penetration enhancing chemicals, can increase by up to 100-fold the dermal absorption of BPA. Significant free BPA was also transferred from hands to French fries leading to a rapid and dramatic increase in BPA exposure from the two sources.

There are some previous indications that BPA might be associated with hypertension and decreased heart rate variability. Now, a just published new study confirm without doubt that BPA can acutely increase blood pressure at normal exposure levels. In a randomised crossover trial, 60 non-institutionalised adults aged 60 years and over visited a study site three times, and were provided with the same beverage in two glass bottles, two cans, or one can and one glass bottle at a time. The researchers found that after consuming two canned beverages the systolic blood pressure increased by a statistically significant 4.5 mm Hg compared to consuming two glass bottled beverages and the urinary BPA concentration increased  by more than 1,600 per cent.

Don’t expect revolution

Of course those two late studies are not included in the EFSA review, but if they were would they change the conclusions? Not so sure. It seems overwhelming evidence is needed for the scientific experts to change their view. Thus don’t hold your breath, it is unlikely that the final opinion, when published, will change much from the earlier draft.

Campylobacter in the headlines

Chicken a time bomb for campylobacteriosis (Photo: Eyal Bairey)

Chicken a time bomb for campylobacteriosis (Photo: Eyal Bairey)

You’re a brave soul, you’ve just bought raw chicken to cook for dinner. You tremble a bit when you start opening the meat tray, but with gloves on and mouth protection you feel relatively safe. The difficulty is not to spill any fluid on the kitchen bench and to make sure that the cutting board and utensils used are promptly put into the dishwasher. With a sigh of relief everything is in hand, chicken in the frying pan and gloves in the garbage bin. You can’t be sure but the next few days will prove if you’ve been successful and protected the family from campylobacteriosis.

Leading cause of gastroenteritis

Campylobacteriosis is a leading cause of human gastroenteritis in the developed world and has been estimated to cost the society around US$4 billion annually in the USA alone. As the name of the disease implies, it is caused by Campylobacter species, literally curved rods, a reflection of the Greek meaning of the name and the way they look. Campylobacter jejuni is the dominating species causing 90% of human campylobacteriosis, with most of the rest caused by Campylobacter coli, both ubiquitous in nature and found in the gut of farm animals where they thrive at temperatures between 37 to 42℃ causing very few ill effects.

Most people who become ill with campylobacteriosis get diarrhoea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever within two to five days after exposure to the organism. Foodborne illness caused by Campylobacter can be severely debilitating, but is rarely life-threatening. The diarrhoea may be bloody and can be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. The illness typically lasts about one week. On rare occasions there are some long-term consequences of this infection, called sequelae, beginning several weeks after the diarrheal illness. Some people develop arthritis. Others develop a rare disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome that affects the nerves of the body resulting in paralysis and requiring intensive medical care. It is estimated that approximately one in every 1,000 reported Campylobacter illnesses leads to Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Chicken the most common source

Only 500 Campylobacter organisms needed to get ill (Photo: ARS)

Only 500 Campylobacter organisms needed to get ill (Photo: ARS)

Chicken meat is the most common source of campylobacteriosis in most countries. It only takes less than 500 Campylobacter organisms to make you sick. Even one drop of juice from raw chicken meat can carry enough Campylobacter to infect a person. The most common way of getting infected is to cut raw poultry meat on a cutting board, and then use the unwashed cutting board or utensils to prepare vegetables or other raw or lightly cooked foods. The Campylobacter organisms from the raw meat thus get onto the other foods through cross-contamination. So now you can see that the precautions suggested above is not completely crazy.

Finding Campylobacter bugs on chicken carcasses is nothing new, what is new is the recent publicity in the UK. There was no publicity ten years ago when around 1,000 raw poultry products were purchased from butcher shops, supermarkets, and specialty stores in New South Wales and South Australia and Campylobacter was found on 87.8 and 93.2% of the carcasses in the respective state. As a matter of fact the then Minister put the lid on the findings and they were later only allowed to be published in a scientific journal without much attention. Although the UK Food Standards Agency tried to do the same, they had to relent to public pressure. Now we know that following six months of testing, an average of 70% of supermarket chickens proved positive for Campylobacter on samples of skin in the UK supermarkets. Admittedly, the number of bugs on each carcass can be quite low, but in the UK case they found that 18% of the nearly 2,000 chickens tested contained the highest levels of Campylobacter that easily can make people sick.

Possible to reduce contamination

This is just not good enough. New Zealand has been affected most badly by campylobacteriosis. In the early 1980s campylobacteriosis became a notifiable disease in New Zealand and evolution of the disease could be followed. At a peak in 2006 the disease affected around 350 people out of every 100,000 of the population. That year a number of voluntary and regulatory interventions to reduce Campylobacter contamination of poultry were introduced by government and industry. And two years later the rate of the disease had more than halved. This apparent success proved that it is possible to produce chicken meat with a much reduced Campylobacter contamination rate.

Let’s demand that the chicken sold irrespective of country should be free of Campylobacter to the extent possible. It is ridiculous the way that farmers have been pressured to reduce costs and take shortcuts to be competitive. It is time for the whole industry to shape up and invest in sustainable production practices. It might make chicken slightly more expensive but it will save money in the long run for the society as a whole.