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OpenMarket: Health and Safety

  • Victory for "Caveman" Blogger and Free Speech in North Carolina

    February 19, 2015 6:54 AM

    Many people associate professional licensing with consumer safety. For example, we wouldn’t want any schlub doing surgery. But where occupational licensing laws may have started out with the goal of protecting consumers, they have now become a means by which certain professionals restrict competition. States require licenses for hundreds of occupations including perilous professions like florist, funeral director, hair braider, and fortune teller.

    The case of the “Caveman” blogger who was bullied by the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition for providing nutritional advice without a license illustrates how licensing threatens not just our economic freedom, but our other basic freedoms. Luckily for blogger Steve Cooksey, his right to express his opinion and give advice to fellow dieters won out over the need to protect licensed dieticians from competition.

    As the Institute for Justice, which has been fighting on Cooksey behalf, wrote yesterday:

    In December 2011, Steve Cooksey started an advice column on his blog to answer reader questions about his struggle with Type II diabetes. Cooksey had lost 78 pounds, freed himself of drugs and doctors, and normalized his blood sugar after adopting a low-carb “Paleo” diet, modeled on the diet of our Stone Age ancestors. He wanted to use his blog to share his experience with others.

    However, in January 2012, the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition informed Cooksey that he could not give readers personalized advice on diet, whether for free or for compensation, because doing so constituted the unlicensed practice of dietetics. The board deemed Cooksey’s advice the unlicensed practice of nutritional counseling, sent him a 19-page print-up of his website indicating in red pen what he was and was not allowed to say, and threatened him with legal action if he did not comply.

  • New U.S. Dietary Recommendations to Correct Misunderstanding about Cholesterol, Not Fat

    February 12, 2015 1:34 PM

    Thomas Jefferson once said, “If people let the government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.” On this issue, TJ seems to have hit the nail on the head.

    Since Uncle Sam started telling us what to eat, Americans have steadily grown less healthy in many ways. In the 1970s, we were told to eat less meat and more grains. We listened, but it did little to curtail the oncoming obesity “epidemic” (some claim government recommendations may have actually caused this epidemic). And for decades, we have been told to restrict our consumption of cholesterol in order to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease. That is, until now. The new dietary guidelines will no longer recommend restrictions on cholesterol consumption. This is a great first step, but the best advice is to stop listening to government nutritional advice.

    For many people, this will seem like an abrupt about-face after 50 years of lectures about cholesterol. But for those in the medical research field, the shift is long overdue. During the last decade, it has become increasingly clear that there is no real evidence linking dietary cholesterol and blood serum cholesterol (which is used as a stand-in for CVD risk). While many physicians are still wedded to the idea that their patients at risk for cardiovascular disease should limit their egg consumption, it sounds like the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee—a joint effort of HHS and USDA—has finally come to grips with the evidence. Unfortunately, the real lesson remains unlearned: the U.S. government shouldn’t be the authority on what is or isn’t a healthy diet.

    The DGAC, which consists of “nationally recognized experts,” meets every five years to review medical literature and hash out recommendations for what a healthy diet should look like. Their report to the secretaries ultimately becomes the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is used by policy makers as a guideline in federally administered nutritional programs and assistance. Unfortunately, it sounds like they will still cling to their increasingly suspect beliefs about saturated fat.

  • Tainted Claims about "Agglomerated" Corks

    February 5, 2015 10:41 AM

    A recent article in Wine Industry Insight titled “Micro-Agglomerates: 350 Million Illegal Corks Per Year?” reports: “Agglomerated cork manufacturers and importers are facing scrutiny from two major federal agencies over health concerns about the plastic used to bind bits of cork glued together. The concern is that chemicals in the binding plastic can leach into wine.” 

    But a closer look at the issue indicates that these agencies are not focused on the corks, there’s nothing illegal about them, and safety concerns are unwarranted.

    The two agencies allegedly interested in the issue are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The chemical in question, toluene diisocyanate or TDI, Wine Industry Insight notes, is “listed as a potential carcinogen” with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the National Toxicology Program (NTP).

    This sounds scary, but there are many reasons why no one should be alarmed about the closures or the chemical involved. But before going into that, we should be clear as to what the agencies are doing in regard to the corks.

    According to an EPA press release, the agency has proposed a rule that would require manufactures to notify the agency if a consumer product they are making will contain more than 0.1 percent of TDI by weight. The EPA does not mention scrutiny of corks that may contain TDI. It’s very possible that these corks don’t contain that much TDI and would not even be subject to this proposed rule.

    Nor is the FDA really scrutinizing the issue. Instead, the agency received letter from an outside party asking questions about related FDA law. Wine Industry Insight has posted a link to a letter from the FDA responding to that party, but the name of the party asking questions is either blanked out or never included. But Wine Industry Insight points out that it was an association that represents competitors of agglomerated cork producers—a synthetic cork association—who filed the petition. It notes:

    “Competition is fierce for the low-end market which is why a synthetic cork association blew the TDI whistle on agglomerates in a letter to the FDA.”

    Obviously, competitors have an interest in making this an issue, but FDA isn’t taking the bait. FDA has authority to regulate “food additives” that might pose a threat to public health and that includes chemicals that might migrate from packaging into food. In its cryptic, bureaucratically written letter, FDA is basically indicating that they have data showing there is no detectable migration of TDI into the wine for the closures currently on the market. Otherwise, they’d be regulating now, but they’re not.

    So much for “federal scrutiny.” There really isn’t much because there’s no good reason for it.

  • No Sprinkles in Obama's America: Trans Fat, Hyperbole, and the Threat Nobody Is Talking about

    February 5, 2015 7:59 AM

    “Say goodbye to your favorite sprinkled doughnuts,” warned Clayton Morris, guest host on Fox & Friends. “The [FDA] is now regulating Americans intake of trans fat…the amount needed to make something as small as a sprinkle on your doughnut may be banned.” Morris is referring to the decision announced by the Food and Drug Administration in 2013 to reclassify partially hydrogenated oils—revoking its status as “generally recognized as safe” and creating a de facto ban on the artificial trans fat found in the oils. Fox’s overwrought presentation of the issue led many observers to ridicule the segment as well as opposition to the FDA action. The ribbing is warranted; discussion on both sides of the debate has overwhelmingly relied on emotional arguments and hyperbole. As a result, most people aren’t talking about the real threat this FDA action poses.

    “Only Vladimir Putin would deny American children—and adults that need to rethink their dietary life choices—their God-given right to ingest sugar in whatever form they deem fit,” Elliot Hannon at Slate joked. “Your doughnuts are safe from Obama’s grasp” wrote Steve Benen at MSNBC. And Cenk Uygur dedicated almost seven minutes of his show, The Young Turks, to myth-busting/ridiculing the Fox segment. Uygur’s response included all of the primary arguments made by those who support an FDA trans fat ban and demonstrated how useless the Fox & Friends-style argument is.

    Uygur takes all of the points made by Morris and shows why it is actually an argument for why trans fat ought to be banned. So what that Americans have almost completely eliminated trans fat from their diets already? “It was the FDA effort to eliminate trans fat in the first place that almost solved the problem and now they’re trying to solve it completely,” he asserts. Almost completely isn’t good enough; according to Uygur and the FDA, trans fat consumption is still responsible for a certain number of deaths so it is completely appropriate for the FDA to act to stop these preventable deaths. “Heart attacks, that’s what the right wing calls freedom,” he jokes. He is similarly unmoved by the argument that most food companies have voluntarily removed trans fat from their products. In fact, he points to this as a refutation of the idea that sprinkles or any other food will be taken off the market if trans fat is reclassified. “Nobody is banning any of these foods. It’s a total lie,” he says.

    Uygur is right. Well, at least partially. FDA action in 2003 requiring manufacturers to list trans fat on nutritional labels did contribute to a reduction in consumption. Of course, it was also pressure from public health advocates and consumers’ demand for healthier products that resulted in the drop: from 4.6 grams a day in 2003 to around 1 gram a day in 2012. It’s worth noting, however, that the public health advocates crying out against trans fat now were the same ones who promoted the use of trans fat by vilifying saturated fat in the 1980s. Uygur is also right that the FDA isn’t banning any particular food: not doughnuts, sprinkles, pie crust; they’ll all survive a “trans fat ban.” They may need to be reformulated, may taste different, and be more susceptible to spoilage, but most products, if not all, will remain on shelves in some form or another.

    Uygur also right when he argues that almost eliminating trans fat from our diet isn’t an argument against a complete ban. For instance, claiming that Americans consume next to zero arsenic isn’t going convince many people that we should let food companies put arsenic in our food. But this is the part of the discussion missing from both sides: trans fat isn’t arsenic and it’s not a poison: it’s a food. As with any other food or beverage, if you consume it in great enough quantities, there will be negative consequences. But trans fat isn’t “harmful”; it is unhealthful, potentially. So, the question is: when is it okay for the FDA to make decisions about what foods or ingredients can or can’t be part of a healthful diet. And is that something we want the FDA deciding at all?

  • New Field Study Confirms Neonicotinoids Have Little Impact on Honeybees

    November 24, 2014 9:58 AM

    As the Ontario provincial government in Canada considers policies that may force farmers to stop using, or drastically reduce use of, a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, a new study shows why such policies are unlikely to do any good. Supposedly, limiting use of these pesticides will improve honeybee hive health, but such regulations will simply make it harder for farmers to produce an affordable food supply.

    The study, which relies on data from actual field conditions, confirms that farmers can protect their crops using these chemicals without harming honeybee hives. Published in PeerJ, it assessed the impact of neonicotinoid-treated canola crops on hives that foraged among these crops in 2012. The researchers found no adverse impacts and very low exposure to the chemicals. The authors report:

    Overall, colonies were vigorous during and after the exposure period, and we found no effects of exposure to clothianidin seed-treated canola on any endpoint measures. Bees foraged heavily on the test fields during peak bloom and residue analysis indicated that honey bees were exposed to low levels (0.5–2 ppb) of clothianidin in pollen. Low levels of clothianidin were detected in a few pollen samples collected toward the end of the bloom from control hives, illustrating the difficulty of conducting a perfectly controlled field study with free-ranging honey bees in agricultural landscapes. Overwintering success did not differ significantly between treatment and control hives, and was similar to overwintering colony loss rates reported for the winter of 2012–2013 for beekeepers in Ontario and Canada. Our results suggest that exposure to canola grown from seed treated with clothianidin poses low risk to honey bees.

    Despite all the media hype about how these chemicals harm honeybees, these findings are not surprising.  Research condemning these chemicals has tended to focus on lab studies that overdose bees to see if pesticides affect hive health. But those studies have little relevance to real-life exposure to these chemicals in the field. The U.S. Agricultural Research Service’s Kim Kaplan explains that such studies have “relied on large, unrealistic doses and gave bees no other choice for pollen, and therefore did not reflect risk to honey bees under real world conditions.”

  • Soda Makes You Old and Other "Data Mined" Myths

    October 31, 2014 2:18 PM

    “‘If you torture your data long enough, they will tell you whatever you want to hear.’ Dr. James Mills noted in a 1993 New England Journal of Medicine article. “In plain English, this means that study data, if manipulated in enough different ways can prove whatever the investigator wants to prove.”

    Indeed, such “data torturing” is responsible for a recent junk science study that claims drinking soda will age your cells, which makes it as dangerous as smoking. But these findings reflect clever manipulation of data—and nothing more.

    Regarding the soda study, columnist Daniel Engber points out in Slate: “The newly published paper delivers a mishmash of suspect stats and overbroad conclusions, marshaled to advance a theory that’s both unsupported by the data and somewhat at odds with existing research in the field.” Engber goes on to detail how these researchers worked and reworked the data to get their desired result.

    Unfortunately, such data mining is all too common. In many cases, researchers don’t even have to work that hard. Rather than using a truly random sample, their “data mining” may simply involve excluding certain participants as “outliers” or pulling out select data subsets from a larger database. In that case, the sample may reflect the researcher’s bias instead of constituting a truly random sample.

    For example, many studies on the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) rely on data mined from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) program that assesses national health trends. CDC collects health data from a different group of volunteers every year via physical exams and interviews. In addition to recording the volunteers’ health ailments, the data also include measurements of BPA in urine and blood. NHANS is a treasure trove for researches who want to cherry pick subsets of data to produce spurious correlations that they can market as meaningful findings.

  • BPA Research Funding Linked to Researcher Bias?

    October 9, 2014 5:18 PM

    The number of studies that have appeared in the news during recent years on the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) is staggering. Few substances undergo such scrutiny. So why BPA? Mattie Duppler of American’s for Tax Reform’s Cost of Government project answers that question in an article for The Hill’s Congress Blog: Congress has poured millions of dollars ($170 million since 2000) into BPA research for what amounts to little more than a witch hunt.

    Follow the money and you may find a strong statistical association between government funding and the increased number of research studies that link BPA to various health ailments.

    Money goes out to researchers motivated to produce studies that report positive associations that easily get published and that gain more funding. And the more money politicians spend for research studies, the more likely some portion of studies will come up with positive associations between BPA and various health aliments, which is likely to happen by mere accident. In addition, many positive findings appear to be attributable to activist agendas among some researchers who make creative interpretations of largely meaningless data. And the studies that come up negative usually don’t get published or end up in the news either because negative findings as simply not interesting.

    Thus far, the allegedly most damning studies on BPA are extremely weak. Most don’t really find what the researchers claim they do, and they are often poorly designed. Consider the latest BPA study in the news. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics (JAMA Pediatrics), it claims that BPA is associated with wheezing and reduced lung function in children.

  • Journalists Called Out for Bad Reporting on Consumption Data

    October 3, 2014 2:20 PM

    Being a journalist is not an easy job; it demands fast paced and high volume production. For those “wonk” journalists tasked with analyzing data-heavy reports for laymen readers, the task is even more difficult. A new post from Forbes’s Trevor Butterworth scrutinizes some recent articles from The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, highlighting how some journos aren’t exactly rising to the challenge. And the consequences go beyond a misinformed public.

    On September 25, Wonkblog posted an article claiming that 24 million American adults are consuming a shocking average of 74 drinks per week. Butterworth delves into the source of those data and points out the numbers aren’t exactly accurate. The data were pulled from a 2007 report which used information from a survey of Americans’ consumption during 2001-2002. Of course, self-reporting surveys are notoriously flawed. Participants misremember what they ate, miscalculate how much, or outright lie about their consumption habits. Butterworth states that if people really consumed what they tell researchers in self-reporting surveys, “life for almost two thirds of Americans would be biologically implausible.”

    Cook, understanding these flaws, attempted to correct for underreporting by multiplying the reported number of drinks by 1.97 which, as Butterworth noted, “requires us to believe that every drinker misremembered by a factor of almost two. This might not much of a stretch for moderate drinkers; but did everyone who drank, say, four or eight drinks per week systematically forget that they actually had eight or sixteen? That seems like a stretch.”

    Furthermore, the study also requires us to believe that those reporting no consumption didn’t drink a drop and even more significantly problematic that those under 18 years old—who were not included in Cook’s study—never consumed alcohol. Plenty of data demonstrates that even though they aren’t legally supposed to drink, a fifth of 12th graders are consuming alcohol. Additionally, Cook’s study, which was trying to account for a discrepancy between how much people said they consumed versus how much alcohol was sold in America, did not account for waste. As Butterworth points out, “…waste is a huge issue with food, with estimates running from 30-40 percent of calories produced; we do not know how much alcohol is, if you’ll forgive the pun, wasted.” Lastly, he notes that other studies looking at consumption patterns “[a]ll converge on a similar proportion; none come remotely close to Cook’s estimate; none are mentioned in Wonkblog.”

  • Cyanide, Tylenol and How Free Markets Make You Safer

    September 29, 2014 4:43 PM

    Today is the anniversary of one of the most significant food and drug related events in recent memory. Often discussed in college business classes these days, the 1982 Tylenol poisonings is usually heralded as the prime example of how companies should handle a consumer relations disaster. However, it is also a shining example of how the market itself—acting to protect its customers and thus its profits—can improve public safety. The actions that Johnson & Johnson took in the wake of this tragedy, without a doubt, improved the safety of consumers of all over-the-counter (OTC) drugs for the next 30 years.

    Within three days, beginning on September 29, 1982, seven people in the Chicago area died after taking Extra-Strength Tylenol laced with cyanide. More than 30 years later, who committed this crime and why remains a mystery. After an investigation, it was determined that the cyanide was not introduced in the factory, which, according to Grey Hunter, author of True Crime Stories“left only one other possibility. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and law enforcement agencies realized that someone had methodically taken the Tylenol bottles off the shelves at the stores where they were sold, filled the capsules with cyanide and returned them back to the shelves at a later period.”

    The incident triggered nationwide panic and distrust of OTC medicine as well as numerous copycat attempts. Within the next month, the FDA counted 270 incidents of suspected product tampering. However, it was unlikely that any tampering following the Chicago deaths involved Johnson & Johnson products. That’s because the company immediately implemented a protocol to make sure that customers could rest assured that any OTC they purchased from Johnson & Johnson was tamper resistant.

    While advertising genius Jerry Della Femina declared that Johnson & Johnson wouldn’t “ever sell another product under that name,” the company managed to turn the crises into a public relations campaign that would promote Johnson & Johnson products as safer than all others. Tylenol, which had been 37 percent of the analgesic market, plummeted to just 7 percent after the scare, but within a year it bounced back to a 30-percent market share. That is all thanks entirely to Johnson & Johnson’s robust campaign to prove to its customers that its top priority was their safety.

  • Study on Artificial Sweeteners Interesting But Flawed

    September 26, 2014 1:29 PM

    ​A new study out of Israel on the possible effects of artificial sweeteners is making a lot of headlines this week. Unfortunately (and as usual) members of the media from Forbes to NPR’s Diane Rehm are reporting on the study without taking into consideration the growing criticism of its methodology, conclusions, and prior research on the topic. As Stephen O’Rahilly, endocrinologist and head of Cambridge’s metabolic research lab put it, “It would be unfortunate if this data were to influence public policy.” 

    Jotham Suez, a graduate student in the Department of Immunology at the Weizmann institute of Science, led the study. Suez et al. gave doses of water laced with saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame to mice and observed that the mice then developed a glucose intolerance. When they looked at the effects of artificial sweeteners on humans, four out of the seven subjects displayed “significantly poorer glycaemic responses” after consuming the maximum recommended daily limit of saccharin for a week. None of the subjects were regular users of artificial sweeteners prior to the study.

    While the results are certainly interesting, the researchers make quite a leap from their results to the assertion that artificial sweeteners “contributed to enhancing the exact epidemic that they themselves were intended to fight.” That is, they are suggesting a link between the consumption of non-caloric sweeteners, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. Yet, this link is dubious. The study may be the start of a significant investigation into how human gut bacteria is affected by artificial sweeteners, but it is preliminary and just one study among a number on the topic—many of which come to wildly different conclusions. Of course, you would never know that from the media coverage.

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