Another day, and we once again feel compelled to praise independent news media. To wit: Freelancer Melinda Wenner is out with a story in Mother Jones that says the federal government tried to obscure the findings of a federal scientist who found traces of toxic mercury in high fructose corn syrup.
HFCS is, of course, the sweetener that has replaced sugar in a bunch of processed foods made by the likes of Smucker’s, Quaker, Hershey’s and Kraft, as well as lesser-known food producers.
The researcher, Renee Dufault of the Food and Drug Administration, had common food products tested for mercury. She was suspicious because she had learned that mercury is used in some plants that produce lye, which in turn is used to separate corn starch from the kernel in the process of making corn syrup.
Sure enough, the tests showed mercury in the food. Dufault, though, was told in no uncertain terms not to pursue this line of inquiry. FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek justified the agency’s decision to halt the research by saying agency officals doubted “that there was any evidence of a risk.”
The MoJo article describes what happened next:
At first, Dufault was reluctant to pursue the matter. But eventually, she became frustrated enough to try to publish the findings herself. She had her 20 original samples retested; mercury was found in nearly half of them. In January, Dufault and her coauthors-eight scientists from various universities and medical centers-published the findings in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health
The corn-syrup industry responded by putting on the case an environmental consulting firm (the same one, in fact, whose scientists testified on behalf of a polluting utility in the Erin Brockovich story, according to Wenner.) That firm, Chemrisk, faulted Dufault for failing to determine if the mercury in the food is organic or inorganic and, if the latter, whether it’s in a form that’s easiest for the human body to absorb.
Now, having reported extensively on mercury contamination in the Florida Everglades, I can testify that it is, indeed, important to do what scientists called “speciating” mecury. Researchers have to know if they’re dealing with the forms that are most readily taken up by the human body.
But take a step further back. The big picture is that a government researcher did enough tests to figure out that there’s a possibility that one of the most ubiquitous building blocks of our food supply is contaminated with a toxic chemical that can affect children’s mental and physical development or even, in usually unsuspecting adults, be associated with weird symptoms like hair loss and common symptoms like stomach upset. Whoa.
The Bush administration’s Food and Drug Administration chose to look no further — to not find out, in other words, what form of mercury is infesting the food supply. Is it the most-dangerous one? The medium-dangerous form? Or maybe it’s the relatively benign flavor?
We don’t know. Because the Bush administration didn’t want to find out. Why, in 2009, are we still wondering about this pivotal question that was raised in 2005?
There’s no good answer.
My hat’s off to Ms. Wenner and to MoJo, which is one of the better examples of non-profit journalism going, and one that has been around for a while. I should point out that MoJo didn’t break the story of the four-year-old Dufault story. I found (not-well-publicized) stories dating back to January with that information. But Wenner’s piece really pushed the story forward and did a valuable public service in exposing how this big federal bureaucracy supposedly set up to protect consumers got hijacked from its mission.
Finally, I shouldn’t sign off without acknowledging that good questions were posed for Wenner to go answer in a report (PDF) by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. I became familiar with these folks when covering the World Trade Organization’s fun-filled visit to Seattle in 1999, and they’ve always struck me as sane and sober enviros raising legitimate if sometimes-wonky questions about what the heck is in our food supply.