by Christine Butler
Australians are giving up red meat in favour of chicken and fish, believing white meat is better for health. Health is now also the main reason Australians are turning to semi-vegetarian diets, living basically on plant foods supplemented by chicken and fish. But with the level of pollution pumped into our seas and the various drugs fed to meat chickens, are these foods really better for our health? Fish ingest residues of chemicals and pesticides from the ocean, are fed colours for aesthetics and are the cause of much food poisoning each year in Australia. Chicken are fed growth promoters, antibiotics and are soaked in bleach before sale.
The Case against Fish
Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) are synthetic compounds created as industrial chemicals or pesticides. There are twelve POPs, of which the pesticides dioxin and furans are two. Most are now banned worldwide because of their harmful effects on humans. However, some are still being used in Australia and in some developing nations. If all these chemicals were banned here today, however, the effects would still be seen for decades because of their persistence in the environment, especially in fish living in cold environments where the pollutants break down at an even slower rate.
POPs bio-accumulate up the food chain via fatty tissue in meat, fish and dairy products. We are at the top of the food chain and 95 % of human intake of dioxins and furans comes from our food. We also are highly susceptible to accumulating POPs because of the amount of body fat we have. Experts in the field recommend humans not induce more than one picogram of dioxin per kilogram per day, and currently industrialised peoples consume about 2-3 picograms. We are already at the limit of intake which causes health problems. Alarmingly, Australia’s accepted levels of dioxin allowed in foods is currently at 10 picograms/kg/day which is 10 times that of the USA and double that of the United Nations.
There have been many studies of POPs in animals and the resulting effects have been very wide. However, I will focus on reported documented effects on humans. Most studies have been done on peoples in arctic regions, as the cold climate assists accumulation of persistent pollutants and their diet is mainly seafood. Dioxin is a known carcinogen in humans, and although studies have not yet been carried out on the Australian population, studies on people in arctic regions have found immune system problems, birth defects and cancer to name a few. Also reported are sex related disorders, infertility, shortened lactation periods in nursing mothers, endometriosis and diabetes.
The Inuit people of arctic Quebec, whose diet consists mostly of sea mammals and fish, have a relatively high background exposure to dioxins, furans and PCBs. Inuit newborns up to one year old were found to have increased episodes of acute middle ear infection which correlated statistically with levels of dioxins and furans and PCBs found in breast milk. The results implied a link to immune system deficiencies caused by dioxin exposure (Greenpeace report on 'Organic Pollutants').
Along with pollutants, heavy metals also present a health alarm for seafood consumers. Heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead are also bio- accumulative and can be present in everything from seaweed to large fish. Larger fish and the fattier fish species are most toxic, as the big fish eat the little fish and the fattier fish retain more. As such, no shark more than 75 cm long can be used for human consumption due to the risk of mercury poisoning. Heavy metal poisoning can cause disabilities and death, such as in Minamata, Japan, where around 100 people died from mercury poisoning from a local chemical factory. Along the East Coast of Australia there is a large natural occurrence of mercury which leaches from the rocks and contaminates surrounding waters.
The Environmental Working Group, a Washington DC-based content provider for public interest groups, has completed a number of reports on mercury contents in US fish stocks. According to one report, the National Academy of Sciences Panel believed some children exposed in utero to their mother’s fish consumption are at risk of having to “struggle to keep up at school and who might require remedial classes in special education”. The fish that should not be eaten by pregnant or nursing mothers or women considering pregnancy are tuna steaks, sea bass, oysters from the Gulf of Mexico, marlin, pike, white croaker and large mouth bass. They also list canned tuna as a fish source not to be consumed by pregnant women more than once a month.
Fish and seafood are also dyed to create the right aesthetic for consumers. In South Australia the fish industry believes consumers will not buy pale prawns, so they are dyed pink before sale. Farmed salmon in Australia, denied krill - their natural food source which would normally give them their distinctive pink colouring - are fed the pink pigment, asthaxanthin.
Apart from the toxic pollutants infesting our local fish supplies, there is the high risk of food poisoning from eating shellfish, due to its susceptibility to bacterial contamination. Oysters, mussels, clams and prawns all carry the greatest risks. Shellfish are mainly filter feeders, sucking in water and absorbing chemicals. They are then susceptible to contamination in mishandling and bad refrigeration in the boats, at the factory, in the shop and in the home. Reef fish are the main source of Ciguatera food poisoning, created from organisms which accumulate in the fish’s flesh. Snapper, sea bass and tropical fish can all be affected. Symptoms include stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhoea. Scombroid poisoning mainly affects tuna, but sardines, bonito and mackerel have all been known to cause poisoning. It is caused by histamines in the flesh and result in headaches, nausea and dizziness.
On the positive, Australian waters are not yet as polluted as American, and our waters not as cold as Antarctica’s. Also, the cooking of fish can destroy some of the present toxins, and we are a nation which enjoys mostly cooked seafood... Anyone for sushi?
The Case against Chicken
According to George Arzey, Senior Veterinary Officer of Poultry at the Department of Agriculture, a variety of antibiotics are used on chickens. He sites tetracyclines and penicillins as two. He says they are “used predominantly on a therapeutic need basis. However, a limited number of antibiotics are also used as growth promotants or to prevent multiplication of bacteria”.
The ingestion of second hand antibiotics in animals for human consumption may now be impacting on the usefulness of antibiotics in humans. Lynda Stoner, from Animal Liberation (NSW), believes industry will state these are unrelated antibiotics, “but there’s more and more research coming out saying they’re not. It just overlaps. It’s a layer upon layer upon layer of devastating consequences of farming this way.”
Nutritionist David Grunseit believes antibiotics “can cause and perpetuate candida”.
A big consumer issue in the broiler industry is maturation rates and the growth promotants used as part of antibiotic doses. It usually takes 80 days to grow a broiler to maturity weight. Now, because of demand for quick breast meat, chicks grow to full standard weight in 42 days, and the industry is pushing for a 35 day- old bird. “So what in effect you’ve got is a nine year old child on a four year old’s legs. So their hearts give out, they suffer frequent acute heart syndromes and collapse of their skeletal system and their legs won’t hold up their bulk. When you cut open a broiler bird you’ll quite often find that pus spills out from their heart, and 70% are crippled”, says Lynda Stoner.
According to George Arzey, hormones are not used in chicken production in Australia, only growth promoters. “A select group of antibiotics are also used as growth promotants at low levels (non-therapeutic) to improve growth rate, mostly through what is believed to be their effect on reducing the level of insult by various micro-organisms on the immune system”.
Meat chickens are also vaccinated in the first week of life to prevent the outbreak of diseases such as Newcastle Disease, which had outbreaks in Western Sydney and Mangrove Mountain in NSW in recent years. The outbreak had a devastating effect on the industry. George Arzey believes vaccination is beneficial for consumers because, “the fact that chickens are vaccinated only improves their immune system and reduces the level of virulent organisms in their body system”.
Pesticide run off from farms and in feeds accumulate in chicken meat. In tests in Victoria chickens were found with levels of dieldrin. According to Grunseit, some of the pesticides found in chicken meat can “act as false oestrogens, which may cause menstrual, breast and hormone problems in women”.
In the process called “Spin Chilling”, the dead birds are soaked for 30 minutes in a mix of ice cold water and chlorine bleach: the water cools the meat and the bleach kills bacteria. “The process reduces the chances for contamination of the final product with micro-organism and therefore also extends the life of the products” says George Arzey. The bird can absorb up to 8% of this water/chemical mixture which is why a defrosted chicken loses so much water. So as consumers we are paying for more chicken than we are left with after defrosting. Also, any natural chicken juices which provide the real flavour are soaked out in the chemical bath. The bleaching also makes the meat white and therefore more consumer-friendly.
As well as the chemicals in commercially-bred chickens, another concern for consumers has been salmonella bacteria poisoning. Approximately 2 million Australians are affected by salmonella food poisoning each year. Salmonella in live birds largely goes undetected due to no apparent symptoms, and thus easily enters the food chain to humans. Australia’s rate of salmonella in poultry is lower than other countries, coming in at 25%. Salmonella is spread in chickens through feed stocks and unhygienic food handling and gutting. The stuffing in commercial chickens can also contain salmonella, as it is often not cooled quickly enough to safe temperatures. Our relatively low rate of reported salmonella poisoning is largely due to the stringent hygiene laws now in place, and the above use of preventative drugs.
As well as the most obvious health concerns, another equally important issue is the fact that the consumer is eating stressed meat from chickens living an unnatural life, such as having their beaks and toes trimmed and living without sunlight in often cramped conditions.
In Australia, organic and free range chicken policy excludes the use of antibiotics and growth promotants, so may provide a safer alternative. Look for certification labels on the chicken to make sure you are buying what the label says you are buying. Also, the poultry industry uses “holding periods” between a sick bird’s antibiotic treatment and their processing for sale. The Free Range Egg and Poultry Association goes a step further, one of their standards requiring that “treated birds must not be sold as Free Range”, and any sick birds must also not be sold in the category. The organic industry bans the use of antibiotics in poultry, opting instead for homoeopathic treatments for sick birds.
One issue to be aware of is that in Australia, the poultry industry is self-regulating. This means that the industry carries out its own testing and reporting for things like antibiotic requirements and growth promotant levels.
So, left to make up our own minds, a few things become clear. The first is that not enough testing on Australian fish eaters has been done, and reports from other parts of the globe certainly warrant them. However, if we avoid the most dangerous species of seafood and limit our intake (especially pregnant and lactating women) the risk in Australia may, as yet, not be too high. As for chicken, the vaccinations, antibiotics, bleach and assorted chemicals may indeed protect us from the many contaminations and diseases chickens are prone to. The question is, do we desire all these chemicals in a food promoted for its health benefits, in an animal which is bred in perfect conditions for infection and disease? Undoubtedly, red meat animals may be produced with similar amounts of drugs and chemicals, but are the white meats really a 'healthier' alternative?
La Ionica Chicken (processed chemical free)
Greenpeace reports on POPs
George Arzey, Senior Veterinarian, NSW Dept. of Agriculture
Lynda Stoner, Animal Liberation (NSW)
Andy Monk, Research Dept., Biological Farmers Association
Rebecca Smith, Choice magazine and Aust. Consumers’ Association
Maria Thompson, Free Range Egg and Poultry Association
How Safe is our Food?, Australian Consumers’ Association, Random House Australia, 1991
Risky Foods, Safer Choices, Peter Cerexhe and John Ashton
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