Monday, 7 August 2017

The Politicization Of Science: A Response To "US trade deal after Brexit could see milk and baby formula with cancer-causing toxins flood UK market"

A short time ago I wrote an article regarding the way a piece of legitimate scientific research had been distorted in order to present a right-wing propaganda piece. As I stated in that piece, my personal politics don't influence my position on how science is presented. I knew it wouldn't be long until I was presented an opportunity to demonstrate this. Today we turn to the left and a recent article published in the Independent entitled "US trade deal after Brexit could see milk and baby formula with cancer-causing toxins flood UK market" by Tom Peck. Remember, with most news outlets if it sounds hyperbolic it probably is.

And boy is this hyperbolic.

The article begins:
"A post-Brexit trade deal with the US could see a massive increase in the amount of cancer-causing toxins in British milk and baby food, The Independent can reveal. American regulations allow more than 20 times the quantity of harmful aflatoxins in food products, compared to the stricter regime imposed by the European Union." The Independant (07/08/2017)
To unpack this first it's necessary to understand there are different types of aflatoxins. The National Cancer Institute tells us:
Aflatoxins are a family of toxins produced by certain fungi that are found on agricultural crops such as maize (corn), peanuts, cottonseed, and tree nuts. The main fungi that produce aflatoxins are Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus, which are abundant in warm and humid regions of the world. Aflatoxin-producing fungi can contaminate crops in the field, at harvest, and during storage.
Aflatoxins are divided roughly into two groups, the difuranocoumarins, most notably B1, B2, G1 and G2, of which B1 is both the most common and the most toxic. And the metabolites, aflatoxin M1 and M2, which are created when cattle are exposed to the difuranocoumarin compounds and are found in milk and dairy products. So with this in mind, we can check if US standards really do allow up to 20 times the amount of aflatoxin as EU standards do.

The EU regulations currently allow total limits of 15 μg/kg for total aflatoxins in most foods, whilst the US allows a slightly higher level of total aflatoxins of 20 μg/kg. No one in their right mind could mistake this for an increase of a factor of twenty surely?

But the Independent directly states:
"US standards also allow products made with nuts and cereals to have higher levels of the carcinogens, which cause damage to DNA and make cells more prone to becoming cancerous."
These figures directly refer to nuts and cereals, so where has the Independent's  figure of twenty times come from. The Independent also states:
"US regulations permit 0.5 micrograms per kg of aflatoxins in milk, cereals, nuts and dried fruits, but the EU restricts levels to 0.025 micrograms – twenty times lower."
This is blatantly false, as I've shown above the nuts and cereal regulations for both regions are much higher than the two figures offered above and it's unlikely that there would be the same regulations for milk and nuts/cereals as these products contain radically different strains of aflatoxins (B1 in nuts and cereals and M1 in milk and dairy). In fact, the figure of 0.5 μg/kg that is given for the US is for M1 in milk or dairy, but the EU figure of 0.025 μg/kg is NOT for dairy but is for infant products! The article also neglects to mention that EU and US restrictions on aflatoxins in animal feed are equal at 20 μg/kg in both regions.

In an example of burying the lead, the article includes a lengthy quote from Simon Dawson, a lecturer in Food Science and Technology at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Mr Dawson informs us of the risks of Aflatoxins, but when it comes to his opinion on whether adopting the US's looser regulations all we get is this throw away line: "He said that there were no studies he is aware of that show a level of 0.5 micrograms per kg resulting in adverse effects..." Dawson does add that we should aim for lower concentrations of aflatoxins, which is sensible. 

There's another element to consider here, the UK is unlikely to import major amounts of dairy products from the US as a result of its relatively short shelf life. What we are in a position to import more of is its cereals. And the regulations for cereals are hardly different, plus the EU has voted several times to loosen restrictions on cereals, so there are no guarantees EU limits wouldn't reach 20 μg/kg at some point in the near future anyway. The article references the EU's frequent adjustments to aflatoxin levels without pointing out that when these adjustments and made, it's generally to INCREASE what constitutes a safe level!

What the Independent says:
"Brussels set its limits in 2006 taking into account extensive research and best available practice to detect the chemicals, which is continuously reviewed and updated – but the US standard has not been updated since 1977."
What they fail to say: the levels set in 2006 were higher than previous levels!

With regards to infant formula, whilst aflatoxins are extremely hardy, studies have shown they do not generally survive UHT processes.

The major danger of excessive consumption of aflatoxin is Mycotoxicosis major outbreaks of which are rare in the west, mostly occurring in India and Kenya, areas where the storage of cereals is not as controlled. In fact, the article references a recent outbreak in Kenya:
"...there have been incidents in Africa and Asia involving intense contaminations of aflatoxins, including one in Kenya in 2004 which claimed 124 lives."
This tells us nothing about US safety standards! In fact, a 2004 study conducted by the CDC carried out in Kenya showed much higher levels of aflatoxins than US standards allow. The only recent outbreak of Mycotoxicosis in the US concerned pet food and claimed the lives of 75 dogs, in an industry that has since introduced considerably more stringent regulations.

The other major danger of aflatoxins is liver cancer, of which incidents are lower in the US than in mainland Europe! Liver cancers account for approximately 1.3% of new cancer cases and 2.6% of cancer deaths (Jemal et al 2003). Liver cancers account for approximately 1.3% of new cancer cases and 2.6% of cancer deaths (Jemal et al 2003).Liver cancers account for approximately 1.3% of new cancer cases and 2.6% of cancer deaths (Jemal et al 2003).InAs Independent reader Glipof points out in the comments section:

The links for said studies are in the sources section below for you to check out.

One last thing to point out, just because the UK will no longer be required to operate under EU regulations after Brexit negotiations end, that doesn't mean we won't choose to maintain these standards.

Look, I'm as against Brexit as the next man, but stories like this which misrepresent data in such an egregious way do no favours to almost half of the electorate who opposed Brexit and still do. Make no mistake, stories like this will be exposed and will be held up as evidence that "remainers" are a deceitful, scaremongering bunch, and when the real damage and danger of Brexit is highlighted it will just be conflated with stories like this. I see no real difference between this story and the claims of avid Brexiters like Nigel Farage who claimed that the entire populations of Eastern European countries would flock through the UK's open borders, or that ridiculous amounts of money were regularly mailed to Brussels with no benefit or return. Propaganda is propaganda no matter which side of the aisle in originates from.


Original story