Wednesday, January 28, 2009

High fructose corn syrup contaminated with mercury and other food safety news

I can't wait to see the new ad-campaign to try to wiggle out of this one. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has issued a report, Not So Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup, revealing that mercury was found in nearly 50 percent of tested samples of commercial high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The research article was published January 26th in the scientific journal, Environmental Health by Renee Dufault et al. From the IATP report:
What she found was that possible mercury contamination of these food chemicals was not common knowledge within the food industry despite the availability of product specification sheets for mercury-grade caustic soda that clearly indicate the presence of mercury (as well as lead, arsenic and other metals). Upon further investigation, she found mercury contamination in some commercial HFCS, which can be made from mercury-grade caustic soda.

Through this public scientist’s initiative, the FDA learned that commercial HFCS was contaminated with mercury. The agency has apparently done nothing to inform consumers of this fact, however, or to help change industry practice.Consumers likely aren’t the only ones in the dark. While HFCS manufacturers certainly should have been wary of buying “mercury- grade” caustic soda in the first place, the food companies that buy finished HFCS and incorporate it into their processed food products may be equally unaware of how their HFCS is made, i.e., whether or not it is made from chemicals produced by a chlorine plant still using mercury cells.

The HFCS isn’t labeled “Made with mercury,” just like contaminated pet foods, chocolates and other products have not been labeled “Made with melamine.” Under current regulations, that information is not made available to either consumers or to companies further down the food supply chain.

When we learned of this gap in information, we set out to do the FDA’s work for it. We went to supermarkets and identified brand-name products—mainly soft drinks, snack foods and other items mostly marketed to children—where HFCS was the first or second ingredient on the label.

We sent several dozen products to a commercial laboratory, using the latest in mercury detection technology. And guess what? We found mercury. In fact, we detected mercury in nearly one in three of the 55 HFCS-containing food products we tested. They include some of the most recognizable brands on supermarket shelves: Quaker, Hunt’s, Manwich, Hershey’s, Smucker’s, Kraft, Nutri-Grain and Yoplait.

No mercury was detected in the majority of beverages tested. That may be important since sweetened beverages are one of the biggest sources of HFCS in our diets. On the other hand, mercury was found at levels several times higher than the lowest detectable limits in some snack bars, barbecue sauce, sloppy joe mix, yogurt and chocolate syrup. Although closer to the detection limit, elevated mercury levels were also found in some soda pop, strawberry jelly, catsup and chocolate milk. The top mercury detections are summarized in Table 3, on page 14 of the report.
Environmental mercury from chlorine plants, coal-fired power plants, dental offices and other sources have helped contaminate albacore tuna, swordfish and many of our favorite fish with mercury. Eating these fish has long been thought to be the most important mercury exposure for most people.

However, HFCS now appears to be a significant additional source of mercury, one never before considered. When regulators set safe fish consumption recommendations based on an understanding of existing mercury exposure, for example, they never built mercury contaminated HFCS into their calculations. HFCS as a mercury source is a completely avoidable problem. HFCS manufacturers don’t need to buy mercury-grade caustic soda. And the chlorine industry doesn’t need to use mercury cell technology. In fact, most chlorine plants in the U.S. don’t use it anymore, as it is antiquated and inefficient.

While we wait for the FDA to do its job and eliminate this unnecessary and completely preventable mercury contamination, we have a few suggestions for what you as consumers and voters can do.

Currently, food manufacturers don’t list on their products the source of HFCS and whether or not it is made from mercury-grade caustic soda. So call them. Make use of the toll-free numbers or Web sites on many packages, and let companies know you’re not comfortable eating their product until you know exactly what is in it. As voters, call your elected officials and ask them for hearings to find out why the FDA is not protecting us from mercury in HFCS.

Also, ask these officials to reintroduce legislation originally proposed by then-Senator Barack Obama a few years ago that will force the remaining chlorine plants to transition to cleaner technologies. Because even if they stop providing the caustic soda used for HFCS, their mercury pollution is still contaminating our food system as it falls on farm fields and waterways.
Tom Philpot at the Grist also covers this topic in Some heavy metal with that sweet roll? Seems to me the house of cards is falling with food safety. In the FDA's spotlight is salmonella in peanut butter from mildew in peanut butter plants, melamine in dry milk from China, and the myriad of meat contamination, with its sights probably on the newest report of Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) being found in swine and swine farmers in the Netherlands and Canada. The more of these reports that continue to surface, the more people will be looking towards alternative food systems.


freude bud said...

Will they be able to afford alternative food systems?

Jack Everitt said...

Their counter Press Release is up:

extramsg said...

It's worth remembering that the industry is no more or less objective than the alarmists who put out releases like this that raise as many questions as they answer. See Marion Nestle's response:

or my own:

Ashley said...

Extramsg-Thank you for your comment.

While I agree with you, my question is, at what point do all these low levels of chemicals, toxins and metals affect our overall biochemistry?

While a little mercury here and a little melamine there in small doses may seem alright at first glance, we don't know for sure the over all impact on health. We do know that we probably shouldn't be consuming either, and isn't it the FDA's job to ensure that?

Marion Nestle speaks to the point when she advocates to eat REAL food. Most of the problems are arising from an industrialized food system that produces food-like products that humans were never intended to eat.

chriscoccaro said...

Thanks for covering this! I work on Oceana's Campaign to Stop Seafood Contamination, which has been working since 2005 to get the chlor-alkali industry to go mercury-free. Since then, 5 of the 9 plants that were using outdated technology at that time have announced plans to stop using mercury. To email the companies that own the remaining four plants and ask them to switch to modern technology, go to

In the last couple of sessions of Congress, we have worked with then-Senator Obama to introduce legislation that would ban mercury in chlor-alkali production by 2012. We will be working to make sure the legislation passes this year!

extramsg said...

I don't know the answer to those questions anymore than you, but that doesn't mean we assume the worst and jump to conclusions. It seems that people WANT it to be true and so they don't care if there's actually evidence.

There are a lot of tough choices to be made about what kind of risks we are willing to take as a society and who should bear the burden of those risks (such as individuals vs industry vs government). But it's important that we first know the facts of the matter and put truth above an agenda.

lauralavalle said...

People don't want it to be true. What they want is straight up information. For instance, since the studies on the corn syrup were from 2005, it would be nice to know how many if any plants still use mercury grade caustic soda. The corn refiners say none of them do. The above mentioned organization "oceana" watchers say 4 of them still do. What is the truth? I for one will definitely try to contact those refiners as suggested. History tells us that companies often won't spend money on upgrading their technologies unless they are forced to. I am glad the story broke, but I wish I wouldn't have had to search for two more hours trying to get all the updated and relevant info!

lauralavalle said...

Furthermore, there is nothing tough about not taking a public health and safety risk when it's not necessary. Change the stinking manufacturing process, already. If the mercury in the HFCS is not a problem, the manufacturing of caustic soda with mercury is a problem. Somebody in these industries just show some ethics and integrity for a change. They shouldn't have to hunted down like dogs before they make these changes.