FOOD THAT CAN KILL
Sometime in late 1964, breweries in Quebec began putting increased amounts of a chemical called cobalt sulphate into beer. The additive had been used for several years to make the foam last longer. But during the next six months 48 beer drinkers in Quebec became ill—and 20 died. It was the most dramatic Canadian episode so far in what has become a worldwide debate over the safety of chemical additives, which are used to make food and beverages tastier, smoother, fresher, firmer, thicker, prettier, clog-free and longer-lasting. Shoppers face a widening array of foods with labels listing barely pronounceable ingredients.
In her 1979 book Additive Alert, Canadian biologist Linda Pirn estimated that three-quarters of the food eaten in North America “undergoes some sort of chemical alteration” between farm and dinner table. Some scientists contend that dozens of those substances ought to be prohibited as health risks, and other experts, equally qualified, claim that additives are well-tested, safe and adequately controlled.
Shift: That controversy began in North America soon after the Second World War. At the time, the population shift to the cities took consumers further from the rural food supply, and retailing became concentrated in supermarkets. The food industry, faced with new challenges in transportation and storage, turned to chemicals as the way to keep products fresh, appetizing and attractive. By the early 1960s a few scientists, including Dr. Wilhelm C. Heuper of the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., had begun questioning the safety of some additives, notably those food colors that
had a coal-tar base and, Heuper demonstrated, caused cancer in laboratory mice. The rise of consumer advocacy in the 1960s in the United States and Canada, led by U.S. lawyer-turned-activist Ralph Nader, made the mysterious chemicals an international issue, and they still are.
Victims: The pattern of the Quebec fatalities aroused the suspicion of the
federal government’s then-Food and Drug Directorate (FDD), which, among other things, policed the use of additives by the food-handling and processing industry. The FDD asked Dr. H. Alexander Heggtveit, a 34-year-old University of Ottawa cardiovascular pathologist, to examine tissue samples from the victims and to take part in experiments arising from his findings.
A team of scientists in Quebec City
discovered that many of the men — most of them manual laborers—had drunk more than 200 ounces of beer a day for more than 20 years before they died, ate poorly and were deficient in both vitamins and protein. Next, Heggtveit and his colleagues put rats on a diet lacking in vitamins and protein and then gave the animals high doses of cobalt. Some rats died.
The conclusion, which explained why properly fed beer drinkers were not affected: protein prevents cobalt from being absorbed by the body and becoming a deadly poison. Even though the Canadian breweries had not exceeded the amount of cobalt sulphate allowed by law, the FDD on July 14, 1966, banned the use of the chemical in beer altogether. Said Heggtveit, now professor of pathology at McMaster University in Hamilton: “Individually, additives may be okay, but taken together with other chemical or nutritive factors may cause adverse reactions.”
Frightening: Still, Dr. W. Harding leRiche, professor emeritus of epidemiology in the University of Toronto’s division of community health, wrote in his 1982 book A Chemical Feast that the issue may be as manufactured as the food. £ He wrote that people think u additives are bad “largely I because the news media have succeeded in frightening the public.”
The food-handling and processing industry, the federal government and many nutritional scientists have defended the use of additives by arguing that without them the quality and variety of foods and beverages would diminish sharply; there would be no barrier to the growth of bacteria and fungus, some deadly; prepared fruits and vegetables and fish would quickly become mushy, cereals mouldy, bread
stale—and all the chocolate in the chocolate milk would sink to the bottom.
In Canada, about 330 chemicals are approved for use as food additives by the federal Bureau of Chemical Safety, created two years after Ottawa reorganized the Food and Drug Directorate in 1972. Since 1964 more than 30 additives have been dropped as “undesirable” and about an equal number of new ones approved. The bureau defines a food additive as “any substance, including any source of radiation, the use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result in it or its byproducts becoming a part of or affecting the characteristics of a food.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which permits approximately 385 additives, uses a similar definition.
Toxic: A company that wants to introduce a new additive (they appear at the rate of about one a year) must tell the bureau where and why it is needed and then, by means of laboratory tests on animals, demonstrate that the substance will not cause any toxic effects. Those tests can take from three to five years and cost the applicant up to $5 million. If the bureau accepts the results, it puts a ceiling on the amount that can be used—as low as 10 parts per million for the additive that decaffeinates coffee, as high as 1,000 parts per million for aspartame to sweeten sugarless gum. Manufacturers also must get approval for new applications of existing additives.
However, consumer activ-
ists and some scientists say that the safety of a chemical additive cannot be proved by testing healthy animals in sterile laboratories because humans have various ailments and live in a polluted environment. Those critics also claim that scientists cannot be sure that all food additives are safe because not enough is known about how they react in the body with chemicals in pesticide and insecticide residues, prescription drugs, cosmetics—and other foods. Said Diane Kirkpatrick, 37-year-old director of the Bureau of Chemical Safety and a Montreal-born analytical chemist: “Do I think all these additives are absolutely safe? Well, they are safe within the limits of our knowledge.”
Verdict: But to Canadians who suffer from chemical allergies, the verdict on additives is already in. Maureen Jensen, a 25-year-old child-care worker in Winnipeg, experiences bronchial spasms so severe that she must carry an adrenalin kit. Said Jensen: “I think additives are a major cause of my problem because there is no other explanation as to why I can occasionally eat meat and occasionally not.” Elizabeth Wuerr of Bedford, N.S., a registered nurse, is allergic to numerous en-
vironmental and food chemicals. She minimizes their effect by such things as not eating the same food more than once a week. “Monosodium glutamate [a flavor enhancer] or any of those things that add to the flavor or are put into food to preserve it, trigger some violent reactions that really incapacitate me,” said Wuerr. Among her reactions: rapid heartbeat and what she describes as “horrible, pounding’’ headaches.
In 1983 Dr. Heather Linklater, a 44year-old Vancouver biochemist, underwent extensive additive testing by Dr. Marshall Mandell, a Norwalk, Conn., allergist whom she had met at a medical meeting in Toronto. Mandell found that sodium fluoride, with which many Canadian cities treat their water supplies to lessen tooth decay, caused Linklater to experience moderate loss of physical co-ordination, sleepiness and heart palpitations. Mandell said that the yellow food dye tartrazine brought severe loss of co-ordination and extreme sleepiness, and monosodium glutamate caused severe migraine headaches.
Misconceptions about the word “safe” prevent people from looking at additives realistically, said Alex Morrison, who
for 12 years before 1984 was federal assistant deputy health minister and now, at 56, is chairman of the food sciences department at the University of Guelph, in Ontario. “The problem is a lack of public understanding of the nature of risk and the nature of safety,” Morrison said. “You can never prove that something is safe. You can only prove that in the conditions under which you tested it, it did not produce any adverse effect. Every human activity has some risk associated with it. A fundamental factor in safety is that it depends on conditions of use.”
Smoke: In the case of the Quebec beer drinkers, heavy consumption and poor nutrition combined to create conditions that scientists had not foreseen. But they might have become evident if additive approvals were harder to get, said U.S. microbiologist Michael Jacobson, 43-year-old director of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, a public advocacy group with 80,000 members in the United States and Canada. Added Jacobson: “A food additive is tested in isolation. It is tested on animals that are totally protected from pollutants, drugs, cigarette smoke and alcohol. They are tested on animals that are in the best of health. They are not tested
on alcoholic animals or asthmatic animals or animals with heart disease.”
Wine: There was a time when they were not tested at all, because additives have been around for centuries. Such spices as paprika, saffron and turmeric were used to color food 3,000 years ago. The ancient Romans forbade adding water to wine, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter) was a common meat-curing agent in the 19th century. It was not until 1860, following the proliferation of chemicals created during the Industrial Revolution, that Britain enacted the world’s first national food laws. They eventually prohibited the use of poisonous food colors containing lead, arsenic and mercury, and such preservatives as formaldehyde. The U.S. Congress passed that country’s first food and drug law in 1906—over the strenuous opposition of food manufacturers and the makers of such patent medicines as Kick-a-poo Indian Sagwa and Warner’s Safe Cure for Diabetes.
Canada’s Food and Drugs Act has evolved from primitive legislation passed in 1874 to control the adulteration of food, alcohol and medicines. “Adulteration” was defined in 1890, regulations covering food colors and preservatives were enacted in 1920 and, after several patchwork refinements, the law
was overhauled in 1964 to classify food additives by type and make, approvals conditional on the results of the manufacturers’ laboratory tests.
However, those laboratory tests did not yield the full story on the cobalt sulphate that went into the Quebec beer, and it is not the only chemical whose harmful potential went unrecognized. Another example is the sulphites, a family of chemicals used for generations as food preservatives. Now they are found in beer, wine, jams and marmalades, pickles and relishes, fresh and dried fruits and vegetables and snack foods—even tomato paste and mincemeat. Sulphites solve the problem of lettuce wilting in the salad bar: dipped in a sulphite solution first, it will retain an appearance of freshness.
Shock: In the fall of 1982, the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, whose headquarters is across the street from Nader’s, asked the FDA “to ban or severely restrict” the use of sulphites. The centre said that there were cases in medical literature dating back to 1976 that told of allergic reactions to sulphites—shock, acute asthma attacks and fainting. Two weeks later a man who had asthma died in Arizona shortly after eating sulphitetreated lettuce in a restaurant. By January, 1986, the FDA had received 850 com-
plaints about sulphite reactions, 14 of them fatal. A few months later the agency banned the application of sulphites to most raw fruits and vegetables.
Alerted by the U.S. reports, Canada’s Bureau of Chemical Safety had begun early in 1983 to search for evidence of sulphite cases and in the months that followed, said Diane Kirkpatrick, received “a number of reports of adverse reactions.” The bureau asked restaurants to use such alternatives as ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and citric acid (heavily concentrated in lemon juice) to cut back on sulphites. It mailed information about sulphites to doctors’ offices, allergy treatment centres and consumer groups.
At 10:16 p.m. on April 25, 1985, Ruby Bovey, a 56-year-old asthmatic with a known sensitivity to sulphites, died at the Queensway-Carleton Hospital in Nepean, Ont., an Ottawa suburb. On Oct. 7, 1986, a coroner’s jury attributed Bovey’s death to an asthma attack “very likely due to a reaction to sulphites present in baked goods she may have ingested that evening.” The jury recommended that restaurants be forbidden to use sulphites on fresh food and that the prohibition be applied to all food as soon as another preservative could be found.
Ruby Bovey may not have been the first Canadian whose death pointed to sulphites. In November, 1984, Lucia Bach, a 28-year-old Toronto hospital filing clerk and an asthmatic who was also apparently allergic to sulphites, collapsed after eating a salad in a restaurant and died a week later without regaining consciousness. Jacobson said that sulphites have caused “about a dozen” deaths in the United States. He added, “I am sure there are many other deaths that have been caused by food additives where the link cannot be established.” Raw: On Oct. 8, 1986, the day after the inquest into Bovey’s death, the federal health department proposed a ban on the use of sulphites on fresh fruits and vegetables sold or served raw and invited public reaction. Kirkpatrick said that
the responses have been
reviewed and that a law may be on the books by late spring.
Sulphites are not the only additives under scrutiny. On July 31, 1981, after 10 years of industry testing that produced shelves full of laboratory reports, L-aspar tyl-L-phenyl alanine methyl ester, otherwise known as aspartame, was approved by Ottawa for use as a sugar substitute in soft drinks, tabletop sweeteners, breakfast cereals, beverage concentrates, desserts and dessert mixes, pie fillings, chewing gum and breath fresheners.
Nausea: The Bureau of Chemical Safety set maximum levels for each product, and this year it will embark on a nationwide survey in collaboration with manufacturers to find out whether the amount of aspartame being consumed points to the need for lower levels. Diane Kirkpatrick said that the survey had been a condition for approving aspartame and was not a consequence of the 50 reports the bureau had since received from people claiming to have suffered dizziness, headaches or nausea after eating or drinking products containing the chemical. The reports, she said, are investigated as they occur.
Aspartame is among about a dozen additives common to the United States and Canada that Jacobson said ought to be prohibited or at least severely restricted until they have been tested more fully. “Aspartame is a real question mark,” said Jacobson. “It clearly needs to be tested as soon as possible because the alleged effects are not minor rashes or headaches but migraine and epileptic-like seizures that are very serious reactions.” At the same time, he said, a group of preservatives—sodium nitrite, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), the sulphites and propyl gallate—“should be knocked out completely” unless the unlikely situation arose in which a safer substitute could not be found. But Jacobson said that he would ban caffeine as a flavor enhancer in cola drinks and synthetic colors, “which are a bad group of chemicals”—what he called his “priority list” for restrictions:
• Sodium nitrite, whose other applications include the manufacture of
automobile tires, appears in processed meats and preserved poultry. Nitritesensitive people get headaches, and the chemical has been linked to a blood disorder, especially in babies, called methemoglobinemia. At the high temperatures generated in cooking processed meats, particularly bacon, the nitrites can combine with the protein in the meat to form chemicals called nitrosamines. Timothy Sly, the 40year-old British-born chairman of the School of Environmental Health at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, described nitrosamines as “some of the most deadly carcinogens known,
just horrible things.” Rubbed on the skin of a rat or mouse, said Sly, high concentrations of some nitrosamines will cause skin cancer “almost 100 per cent of the time.”
• BHA, BHT and propyl gallate show up in vegetable oils and shortening, breakfast cereals, dry beverage mixes, snack foods, margarine, gum and instant potatoes. High doses in animals interfere with reproduction, affect behavior, alter blood cells and cause tumors of the stomach, lungs and ovaries. Ironically, research suggests that BHT reduces the risk of stomach cancer in humans.
• Caffeine stimulates the nervous system and heightens hyperactivity in children. Various experiments have
linked caffeine to birth defects, cancer of the pancreas and ulcers.
• The synthetic colors or dyes that Jacobson described as “really suspicious; the Norwegians banned them all about 10 years ago, not because they were proven dangerous but just because they weren’t worth the risk.” Thirty-four colors, about 10 synthetic, are approved for use in Canada, but manufacturers are only required to put the word “color” among ingredients listed on labels. Those colors are found in jams, jellies, butter, bread, ice cream, pickles, concentrated fruit juice, orange peel, maraschino cher-
ries, dried egg, vegetable fats and oils, margarine, cheese, icing sugar, processed meats and fish, alcoholic beverages and sherbet. The synthetics are complex chemicals; the red dye amaranth, which the United States has banned, is the trisodium salt of l-(4sulpho-l-naphthylazo)-2-naphthol-3,6disulphonic acid. The World Health Organization has recommended that two colors permitted by Canada—Brilliant Blue FCF and Citrus Red No. 2— not be used.
‘Brew’: In Additive Alert, 34-yearold Pim, a native of Montreal, wrote that because the colors served no purpose other than making food more attractive, “every effort should be made to remove them as soon as possible.”
But Pim, who worked for seven years with the Toronto-based environmental group Pollution Probe, did not stop with colors. About 20 per cent of the additives now permitted by Ottawa should be banished, she said, because they are “at least seriously suspected of having detrimental health effects on human beings.” For Pim, a major unresolved issue is whether what she calls the “witches’ brew” of food chemicals was combining to create an effect greater than the sum of the individual effects. Said Ryerson’s Sly: “When we
consider the question of interaction among chemicals, we just haven’t got a clue what goes on in there, but it’s frightening just to begin to consider it.”
Load: Lynn Trainor,
65, a University of Toronto biophysicist and professor of physics, said that Canadian and U.S. regulatory agencies were deceiving themselves when they declared an additive safe to use “because what they see from the tests is the specific result of using just that one thing, and what they are not taking into account is the total chemical load on the population.” Added Trainor, a native of Saskatchewan:
“The general impression I get is that there is a definite increase in allergies in society; that there are more and more people who just feel sick and depressed.”
All that, said Trainor, could be the result of “general stress,” but it may be “more specifically caused by the fact that we are, to some extent, being poisoned, which may not necessarily be too strong a word.”
A major element in the debate over additives, said Richard Ronk, deputy director of the FDA’s Centre for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, is that the public “will not accept that food itself is a series of chemicals with the result that when chemicals are added they don’t see that as proper. We can’t live in an urbanized society without food additives, and that is the message we don’t seem to be able to get across to people.”
Jack Basuk of Ottawa, a 55-year-old analytical chemist and former scientific adviser to the Science Council of Canada, said that members of the public “have to get far more heavily involved in voicing their views.” But he added, “How can they voice their views when they don’t know the chemistry or what the risks are because the scientists themselves don’t know?” The federal
government asked for those views—and got them in a national food additive survey carried out by Ottawa between June 25 and Aug. 18, 1979. Fifty-seven per cent of the 24,900 people who took part said that they knew that manufacturers had to test additives before they were used, but 68 per cent said tha+ they did not believe the chemicals were well enough controlled. Seventy per cent said they felt that chemicals did not improve the quality of food, and 69 per cent said that food colors were not justified. Perhaps most revealing is that 87 per cent expressed concern about the effect of
additives on their health. The Health Protection Branch commented that there were “many areas of confusion and concern.”
One way to resolve that confusion and reduce the additive risk, said University of Guelph’s Morrison, “would be an enhanced post-market surveillance of new food additives so that when a new product goes on to the market, its use is monitored closely for the first five or 10 years. Then you will know exactly what it will do and what it won’t do.”
Stress: Morrison added that he retired from the Health Protection Branch partly because of the stress. He declared: “There isn’t a day that there isn’t a product whose safety is being questioned. The public is saying why isn’t this stuff off the market, and other people are asking why are you taking this off the market? On top of that, you have to make decisions quickly, and you have to make them without all the information you would like. If you’re too slow people will die, and if you’re too fast you’re going to get sued because you did irreparable damage to a product.” Morrison added: “I can’t think of a decision we made in 15 years when we had all the data we would have wished in order to make decisions calmly and rationally.”
To the members of the Canadian Organic Producers Marketing Co-operative Ltd., there is only one decision to be made: abolish all additives. The co-operative, in Girvin, Sask., roughly midway between Regina and Saskatoon, has opened a mill in an abandoned school, and members say they hope to market chemical-free grain and organic food worldwide. Declared co-op member Elmer Laird, who stopped using chemicals on his wheat acreage in 1969: “The issue of chemicals in food is becoming a bigger health issue with people all the time.” Few consumers on either side of the controversy disagree.
— RAE CORELLI in Toronto