Food Fright!

photo from Yvan Dalain, 1956

If your biggest worry is getting circus peanuts or conventional apples in your trick-or-treat bag tonight, hold on to your hat, because there are a LOT of scarier food issues these days. Here’s a roundup of the most frightening: from genetically engineered salmon to chemicals in canned soups, you'll learn from these spooky issues why you should be carefully inspecting not only your trick-or-treating haul, but what you put into your mouth every day.


For the past few years, AquaBounty has been developing the genetically engineered “AquAdvantage salmon,” also none-too-affectionately known as “Frankenfish.” Just like Dr. Frankenstein, the company compiled bits of other animals to make their monster -- they used genes from Chinook salmon and ocean pout to creating a GE fish that can grow year round and reach market weight twice as fast as salmon in the wild. AquaBounty would like to have you believe that AquAdvantage is the future of sustainable fish production and is fighting for FDA approval. But it gets even creepier: USDA has given the company money to fund research to make Frankenfish sterile, effectively subsidizing the company’s efforts toward this highly questionable technology. Like all GE products, GE salmon pose a threat to biodiversity. For more information, check out Chris Hunt’s post GE Salmon: Swimming Away with Subsidies.

Deadly listeria cantaloupe outbreak

In September, an outbreak of listeria linked to consumption of tainted cantaloupes was tied to 25 deaths and 98 illnesses in 18 states. The illnesses were traced to consumption of Rocky Ford cantaloupes grown at Jensen Farms' fields in Granada, Colorado. An FDA investigation revealed that Jensen Farms, the farm responsible for what is now known as the nation’s largest Listeria outbreak, allegedly strayed far from established food safety practices when handling their cantaloupes. The FDA has traced the deadly outbreak to the company’s packing facility—and the bacteria most likely came from a farm truck used to haul cantaloupes to a cattle facility, where there was an increased risk of contamination via animal feces.

BPA – the dangerous chemical that lurks in your canned food

BPA – an ingredient in polycarbonate plastics – is one heck of a scary chemical—and what makes it even scarier is where it’s used. BPA is known to be an endocrine-disrupting chemical that mimics the female sex hormone estrogen. Exposures have been linked to a wide range of problems including prostate and breast cancer, reproductive harm and abnormal development of the brain. This month, studies linked BPA to anxiety, depression and hyperactivity in girls at age 3. Scientists now also say that exposing a fetus or a young child to BPA confuses cell receptors, which may add to the risk of lifelong obesity. In many states, it is still legal to use BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups, which are a significant source of exposure during vulnerable periods of development.  A study published in September from the Breast Cancer Fund shows that BPA is found in canned foods marketed specifically to kids, including Campbell’s Disney Princess and Toy Story Soups.

Methyl Iodide in California’s strawberry fields

Methyl iodide -- a pesticide linked to cancers, kidney problems, thyroid disease, late-term miscarriages and other health problems -- was approved for use in California by the Schwarzenegger administration in December of 2010 despite widespread opposition. In August of 2011, hundreds of people bombarded California Governor Jerry Brown’s Facebook and Twitter accounts urging him to immediately ban the use of the cancer-causing pesticide, but to no avail. This month it appears as if California’s strawberry fields will get their first dose of this scary chemical—contaminating the crops and putting neighbors in the line of fire.

Superweeds are on the rise

Genetic engineering sounds like the premise of a horror movie—and it might as well be with all the havoc it is wreaking on the environment. Genetic engineering has failed to increase the yield of any food crop, and instead has increased the use of chemicals and the growth of "superweeds." The prevalence of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GM crops has led to the increases of Roundup resistant weeds in the environment. Farmers and agronomists around the world are alarmed by the growing epidemic of superweeds developing a resistance to the herbicide. According to a new report by the Global Citizens Report on the State of GMOs, “The GMO Emperor has no Clothes,” from November 2007 to January 2011, infested acreage in the U.S. has more than quintupled, from 2.4 to 12.6 million acres. In Brazil, researchers have reported that nine species have developed tolerance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup.

The northeast pumpkin shortage

It turns out that the only thing scarier than the frightening faces carved onto pumpkins is sudden disappearance of jack-o-lanterns in northeastern states, thanks to a slew of natural disasters that befell pumpkin farmers earlier this year. First, spring rains pushed back the planting of pumpkin seeds. Then heavy rains over the summer caused outbreaks of phytophthora fungus, a type of mold that destroys the gourds. Finally, Hurricane Irene came through and flooded entire pumpkin patches. So if you live in the northeast, be prepared to throw down some serious dough for your pumpkin—or you can make the trek to other areas of the country, where the crop fared way better this season.