Robyn Speaking at TEDx
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His comments are powerful, especially in light of the ongoing debate: Do artificial colors contribute to hyperactivity in kids? Are food dyes responsible for ADHD? What about cancer concerns, as suggested by the Center for Science in the Public Interest?
The fact of the matter is that you are going to get a different answer depending on who you ask. I learned this the hard way when I went to some of our leading pediatric allergists a few years ago to ask about the link between the introduction of GMOs into our food supply and the sudden epidemic we were seeing in the number of American kids with food allergies. They didn’t like the line of questioning and fired off some pretty aggressive responses. But given my background as a food industry analyst, I quickly learned that financial ties between doctors and agrichemical, food and pharmaceutical corporations can play a pretty important role in what these doctors are willing to say.
So when people get heated up around the science of food dyes, I find myself asking the same questions: Who has funded the research? Is there a financial incentive involved to protect the status quo? And are doctors that are speaking out on this issue in any way affiliated as spokespersons for either the food or pharmaceutical companies that stand to benefit from the continued use of these food dyes in foods?
Since there are usually extensive financial ties between doctors and food and pharmaceutical corporations, it is often helpful to turn to the consumer marketplace and food companies themselves for answers because money talks.
And interestingly, Kraft, Coca Cola and Wal-Mart have already removed these artificial food colors and dyes from the products that they distribute in other countries. They’ve reformulated their product lines in other countries and no longer include these food dyes, and they did it in response to consumer demand and an extraordinary study called the Southampton Study.
The Southampton Study was unusual in that it not only tested an overall number of six dyes (three of them are used in the US (Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6) and the other three are used in the UK) but also the combination of two ingredients: tartrazine (yellow #5) and sodium benzoate. The study’s designers knew that a child very rarely has occasion to ingest just a synthetic color or just a preservative; rather, a child who is gobbling up multicolored candies is probably taking in several colors and at least one preservative.
What’s amazing is that in the U.K., the federal food safety agency actually funded the Southampton Study that led to even U.S. corporations eliminating synthetic colors and sodium benzoate from their U.K. products.
And in response, a whole host of companies, including the U.K. branches of Wal-Mart, Kraft, Coca Cola and the Mars candy company (who make M&Ms), have voluntarily removed artificial colors, the preservative sodium benzoate, and even aspartame from their products. Particularly those marketed to kids.
When I first learned about this in the spring of 2007, I was stunned. Our American companies had removed these harmful ingredients from their products overseas—but not here?
When I first learned this, I found the information discouraging. But then I realized that we aren’t asking our corporations to reinvent the wheel, we are simply asking for them to place the same products on our grocery store shelves that they are selling overseas.
Because Kraft, Coca Cola and Wal-mart are living proof that is possible for giant corporations to make and sell kid-friendly, family-friendly, and healthy processed foods so that we can give our kids some special treats—like the U.K. versions of Starburst and Skittles, for example —without necessarily exposing them to a chemical cocktail that might also give them brain tumors, or leukemia, or the symptoms of ADHD, as the Center for Science in the Public Interest recently highlighted in their report “Rainbow of Risks”.
And it is inspiring (once you get over the initial shock) to see how far the companies have gone and how quickly they acted to remove these dyes from kids’ foods in other countries.
Asda, for example, the U.K. branch of Wal-Mart acted just one week “after details were leaked to the UK press of a study by researchers at Southampton University. . . ” They didn’t even wait for the study to be published—that’s how concerned they were about public opinion.
In an article published by the Food and Drink Federation, a Web site that monitors food issues in Europe, Jess Halliday reported that “Asda [U.K. Wal-Mart] has pledged to remove any artificial colours or flavours from its 9,000 own label products, as well as aspartame, hydrogenated fat, and flavour enhancers such as monosodium glutamate.”
Wow. The Southampton study didn’t even mention those last three items. Why was the U.K. Wal-Mart rushing to make such healthy choices, when the U.S. Wal-Mart still offered the same old stuff? Wal-Mart had even been slapped by a lawsuit from the Ajinomoto, the company that now makes aspartame, which claimed that U.K. Wal-Mart’s publicizing of its aspartame-free products was a kind of defamation—all while U.S. Wal-Mart continued to use the sweetener.
Can you imagine how grateful parents in the UK must be when they read this? “[U.K. Wal-Mart] will also meet the Food Standards Agency’s salt-reduction targets–two years ahead of the 2010 deadline,” the article continued.
Isn’t that amazing? Over in the U.K., our American companies rushed to meet government standards two whole years before they even go into effect. It begs the question, why?
According to Asda/U.K. Wal-Mart food trading director Darren Blackhurt, “We know that our customers, particularly those that are mums and dads, are becoming more and more concerned about what’s in the food they buy.” Indeed, the article continues, “consumer awareness of nutrition and food quality in the UK has soared in the last few years. . . ” Accordingly, U.K. Wal-Mart was planning to spend 30 million pounds, or about $50 million, to reformulate its product line, adding that, “in the main, taste will be unaffected.”
Pretty stunning, right? Clearly learning about this remarkable decision is sure to leave a few American parents a little hyperactive. And if you look at the decision a little more closely, you will discover that Asda/Wal-Mart was far from the only British company to respond to the Southampton Study in such a dramatic way. According to the Food and Drink Federation in the U.K., several companies—whether British-based or British division of American corporations—had started offering their customers color- and additive-free processed foods.
“We are aware of the recent publication from the University of Southampton on selected artificial colours, and we will continue to follow the guidance of regulators on this issue.”—Coca- Cola Great Britain. And in fact, on May 27, 2008, the story broke that Coca Cola was removing sodium benzoate from its products—but only in the U.K.
“Kraft Foods UK has no products aimed at children that contain the ingredients highlighted in the FSA [Southampton] study. . . . [W]ith our recent Lunchables reformulation in the UK, we reduced fat and salt, as well as removed artificial colours and flavours. Without compromising quality, taste and food safety, we will continue to see where we can make changes and still meet consumer expectations.”—Kraft Foods UK
"We know that artificial colours are of concern to consumers, which is why, in 2006, Mars began a programme to remove them from our products. . . in November 2007, Starburst Chews became free from all artificial colours. . . . in December 2007, Skittles were made free from all the artificial colours highlighted in a landmark study by Southampton University. . . We have already removed four colours mentioned in the Southampton study from Peanut and Choco M&M’s, and are in the process of removing the final one so they too will be free from these artificials during 2008.”—Mars UK
“Nestlé UK does not manufacture children’s products that contain any of the additives investigated by the FSA [Southampton] research. . . . and from September 2007, the UK’s favourite kids’ chocolate brand—Milky Bar—is to be made with all natural ingredients.”—Nestlé UK
"We are committed to replacing all artificial colours in our sweets. We note the Southampton University findings, but we had begun this process already because we are continually listening to our customers.” —UK Cadbury Chocolate division
Every time I read over those quotes, I find them absolutely stunning. Why are companies that operate in the U.K.—including our very own U.S. companies—so eager to take out the artificial colors there and so completely reluctant to do so here? Why are they willing to spend the money to reformulate their products there while refusing even to consider such a change-over here?
Maybe the answer can be found in a BBC report on Asda/U.K. Wal-Mart, “Explaining its decision to halt the use of artificial colours and flavours, Asda said it was acting because ‘mums and dads are becoming more and more concerned about what's in the food they buy.’” An Asda/U.K. Wal-Mart press release elaborates: “Reformulation was hard work, but it was a labour of love.” Well, why can’t they perform that same labor of love over here? Is it too much to ask for what they have overseas?
After all, we’re not asking them to reinvent the wheel—they’ve already removed these ingredients from their products elsewhere. So why can’t our children get the same protection? Why can’t they serve up the same products to us?
Today it is estimated that 50% of Hispanic and African-American children will develop diabetes, that 1 in 90 boys has autism, and that 1 in 4 children has asthma. The Journal of Pediatrics reported that from 2002-2005, there was a 103% increase in diabetes medication for children, a 47% increase in asthma medication, a 41% increase in ADHD medication and a 15% increase in high cholesterol medicine.
And while the science may be disputed, depending on who is funding the study, as to whether commonly used food dyes such as Yellow 5, Red 40 and 6 others made from petroleum pose a “rainbow of risks” that include hyperactivity in children, cancer (in animal studies), and allergic reactions, because of the problem of hyperactivity, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of these dyes given that the British government and European Union have taken actions that are virtually ending their use of dyes throughout Europe.
Is it too much to ask for the same value to be placed on the lives of the American kids in their cost-benefit analyses that has been placed on the lives of kids in the UK?
As a proud American, it seems to me that our duty as moms and dads and concerned citizens is pretty clear. We have to get this information out there so that our government and our corporations listen to us, the way that governments and corporations in Europe, Australia, the U.K., Japan, and other developed countries listen to their citizens.
Because while our children may only represent 30% of our population, they are 100% of our future.
Perhaps it’s time that we value them like our country depends on it.
As to be expected, there is a scientist in the field of genomics aggressively speaking against one of my TEDx talks.
It’s not the first time that my work has come under fire, nor will it be the last as the information that I present is disruptive. To many, it creates a cognitive dissonance - a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas, beliefs or values and can often elicit a strong emotional reaction.
As it did just that over the weekend for a scientist at the University of Florida which houses the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
So when I looked into the work of the person making the accusations, I was not surprised that he had dedicated his life to plant research and genetic engineering. His commitment is remarkable. I understand it, because it is that same dedication that I have to my research and work into the financial engineering and the role it can play in the integrity of science.
That dedication, that level of commitment, is something to be honored, not slandered, as it is not without sacrific.
But his criticism was that of a subject that continues to raise itself as to whether or not genetically engineered crops are safe.
The scientific debate tends to center around whether genetically engineered crops have been “thoroughly tested,” while a debate around the financial engineering of the science continues to grow.
So let’s look at the science, because as the Union for Concerned Scientists states:
“Political interference in federal government science is weakening our nation's ability to respond to the complex challenges we face. Because policy makers depend on impartial research to make informed decisions, we are mobilizing scientists and citizens alike to push for reforms that will enable our leaders to fully protect our health, safety, and environment.”
In a Science Magazine in 2000, a Spanish researcher named Jose L. Domingo who later went on to write a 2007 paper, “Toxicity Studies of Genetically Modified Plants: A Review of the Published Literature,” found only seven peer reviewed papers on genetically engineered crop safety as of 2000, most of them dealing with short-term nutritional effects. According to Dr. Charles Benbrook, who worked in Washington, D.C. on agricultural policy, science and regulatory issues from 1979 through 1997, served for 1.5 years as the agricultural staff expert on the Council for Environmental Quality at the end of the Carter Administration, and following the election of Ronald Reagan, moved to Capitol Hill in early 1981 and was the Executive Director of the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture with jurisdiction over pesticide regulation, research, trade and foreign agricultural issues, what that means is that at the time that two genetically engineered products were approved for the food supply, there were no studies in the open scientific literature.
Let’s stop and think about that for a minute in the context of something that is more familiar.
Can you imagine if a medical device or a new pharmaceutical drug were introduced with no studies in the open scientific literature for public review? Or if a car was introduced onto the highway in the same manner?
The concern is shared by the National Academy of Sciences in the paper, Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Assessing Unintended Health Consequences, "As with all other technologies for genetic modification, they also carry the potential for introducing unintended compositional changes that may have adverse effects on human health."
Furthermore, according to Benbook, as of 2007 and Domingo's more recent and comprehensive review, a “Toxicity Studies of Genetically Modified Plants: A Review of the Published Literature", there are still no more than about ten studies assessing the toxicological impact of genetically engineered ingredients in our food supply, almost all are limited in scope and short term, with most of them dealing with genetically engineered foods other than corn and soybeans.
Which means that the bottom line is that there are no published, peer reviewed studies on the toxicological impacts of today's commercial genetically engineered ingredients now found in our food supply, and almost none on older genetically engineered ingredients, that provide evidence that show that these foods are toxicologically safe.
At the conclusion of the abstract for the paper, the author himself poses the question: “where is the scientific evidence showing that GM plants/food are toxicologically safe?”
To me, that is a question so important that it was unequivocally an “Idea Worth Spreading,” a question worth asking, a dialogue worth having.
Correlation is not causation but with the Centers for Disease Control now reporting that cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in children under the age of fifteen, that there has been a 265% increase in the rates of hostpiatlizations related to food allergic reaction, it is worth noting that “no evidence of harm” is not the same as “evidence of no harm.”
What we are witnessing, through 55 members of Congress that have called for the labeling of these ingredients, the over 100 million Americans who have sent comments to the FDA asking for the same, an interest in a TEDx talk given by a former financial analyst, author and mother of four, is a movement, perhaps begun by the Spanish researcher with his ask for the scientific evidence showing that genetically engineered foods are toxicologically safe, and a call for the labeling of these foods until we have more science.
It is a call for studies that might alert a pregnant woman working on a farm about the impact that her exposure to these crops and the chemicals used to produce them might have on the health of her unborn babies.
It is a call for science and for the research that tells a mother if her child is allergic to conventional soybeans, the kind that has been in our food supply for generations, or if her child is allergic to the genetically engineered components now found in soybeans that were introduced in the late 1990s.
It is a call for the scientific tests that would enable a father to test his child for those differences at his allergist’s office.
It is a call for science and our right to know about the foods that we are eating and what their impact might be on the health of our families.
Is correlation causation? Not at all, but with millions of Americans beginning to wake up to the fact that we have additives in our food supply, from lean beef trimmings, to artificial growth hormones to genetically engineered ingredients, additives that were not in our foods a generation ago, we are asking for more science, integrity in science, full disclosure of the financial engineering behind the science, and for labels and the right to make an informed choice about what we are feeding our families.
We have learned what can happen if we don't find the courage to raise the issue and to ask the hard questions, from the tobacco industry to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, so I hope that the TED team will continue the conversation with consumers, genetic engineers as well as financial ones, economists and the medical community in a forum in which attendees can express their opinions and one that requires full disclosure of any institutional ties, research grants or patents of those involved to preserve the dialogue and the scientific integrity of the discussion.
Because as Carl Sagan once said, "We have designed our civilization based on science and technology and at the same time arranged things so that almost no one understands anything at all about science and technology."
An idea worth spreading? A dialogue worth having? Absolutely.
Scientific Integrity: Union of Concerned Scientists: http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/
Toxicity Studies of Genetically Modified Plants: http://www.biosafety.ru/ftp/domingo.pdf
Faculty Endowments: http://www.uff.ufl.edu/FacultyEndowments/ProfessorshipInfo.asp?ProfessorshipFund=007489
Kevin Folta's Blog: http://kfolta.blogspot.com/2012/03/complete-insanity-in-theater-built-by.html
UF Scientists Collaborate with Monsanto: http://news.ifas.ufl.edu/2011/10/14/uf-scientists-collaborate-with-monsanto-to-develop-improved-computer-model-for-corn-production/
Health Care reform should begin at the USDA...
The landscape of health has changed. No longer are our families guaranteed a healthy livelihood, not in the face of the current rates of cancer, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer's and allergies. In the words of Elizabeth Warren, Harvard University law professor who is head of the Congressional Oversight