Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

6th August 1999 - Disease and Unease

Copyright © 1999 Russell Brown

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how's yer health? Fancy a cure for cancer? Holmes and the New Zealand Herald certainly did. In one of the most bizarre media episodes I can recall, both of them went gangbusters on the potential cancer-curing properties of Lyprinol, a an extract of our very own green-lipped mussel.

Holmes flew to Adelaide to interview Dr Henry Betts of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, whose lab tests had suggested that the mussel extract killed cancer cells. Emphasising the traditional New Zealand "crikey, that'll be good for the economy won't it?" angle, the programme even wheeled on Food & Fibre minister John Luxton who cautiously agreed it was all very exciting.

The next morning, the Herald arrived with a front page headed 'A cure for cancer?' Although below the fold it quoted a number of local experts expressing caution and even doubt about the "discovery", the clear impression was that cancer was now nailed and we could get onto achieving world peace and cold fusion.

Not surprisingly, there was a rush by desperate people on pharmacies. More surprisingly, the pharmacies were ready for it. Somebody involved with the marketing of Lyprinol had tipped off them off that there was going to be a whole lot of press about this stuff. Somebody had, indeed, run quite a number on the press.

But who? It's really not quite clear. Not us, said the New Zealand distributors, who withdrew the product at the request of the Ministry of Health, after desperate people spent about $2 million on Lyprinol in a single day.

It emerged that Dr Betts had not even gained approval from his own hospital for cancer trials involving Lyprinol. The Herald called Holmes rash and gullible and Holmes called the Herald irresponsible.

The Herald took the moral high ground, arguing that the ministry's squeamishness about breaches of the Medicines Act was keeping people from a product that had long legally been available as a dietary supplement. It might have continued to be available had not the paper so grossly oversold it.

On the Wednesday, the paper ran an editorial noting that "people with cancer are desperate to try any potential cure" and that Lyprinol manufacturers had done no more than capitalise on the unproven possibility that their product might cure cancer. This was, the paper of record said, "exciting for cancer sufferers and profitable for company". Sweet Jesus.

In other things-that-make-us-uneasy health news, it emerged that Taupo's Rainbow Clinic, where a former direct marketing entrepreneur from South Africa treated young Liam Williams-Holloway with a machine that went ping, has been the subject of complaints about both treatment and the level of charges. The alternative health practitioners' body is concerned and - gosh - Jonathan Eisen has changed sides. He's no less self-important, though.

Health Minister Wyatt Creech has been involved in other things, of course, deciding along with the other ministers in the Australia New Zealand Food Authority that we will get labelling of genetically modified food.

What will be labelled and how isn't quite so clear - and, as if in a trade-off, Creech also announced that New Zealand's 10-year ban on the last creepy food thing - irradiation - will be dropped.

What does it all mean? Should we be afraid? Well, first up, food irradiation will not spawn a generation of mutant babies. It does not create radioactive food. It has been approved by the World Health Organisation.

It has also been approved by US Food and Drug Administration, - but I don't tend to regard approval by that highly compromised agency as any sort of endorsement at all.

There's a quite a push behind irradiation in the US right now - not just from the usual industry PR groups masquerading as honest brokers of information, but from food safety and nutrition groups at respectable universities.

Why? Because poisonings resulting from contamination by e.coli, salmonella and other bacteria are shaping up as an epidemic. Between six million and 80 million Americans a year get sick from the food they eat.

This has struck at the heart of the American psyche because one of the worst sources of food poisoning is that most American of snacks, the burger. Or, rather, the pattie. In 1993, four children died and hundreds of people got sick from eating undercooked, contaminated hamburgers at an outfit called Jack in the Box. More recently, a scare at Burger King forced its supplier, the giant Hudson Foods, to recall 25 million pounds of bacteria-tainted beef.

A very well-resourced food production and handling industry has teamed up with the FDA to argue the merits of irradiation in the media. In 1997, President Clinton unveiled his $43 million National Food Safety Initiative, which was basically a rallying cry for irradiation.

The punters remain somewhat resistant to the idea of nuked food, so the industry is pushing for irradiation to be renamed "cold pasteurisation". Much more cuddly, innit?

But wouldn't they be better advised to clean up their act? The $40 billion US chicken industry has become used to fending off problems with contamination by pumping its birds full of antibiotics. Problem: this overuse has resulted in bacteria which have become resistant.

A study in Minnesota found antibiotic-resistant campylobacter in 20 percent of infected chickens and 84 percent of infected turkeys. It's not working any more. And now there is concern that people with campylobacteriosis may not respond to certain antibiotic treatments.

None of this should surprise us: the American chicken industry is as vile, dirty and exploitative as you could imagine and then some. Conditions are terrible and its mostly immigrant workers are used up and spat out once they've succumbed to chronic overuse injuries or endemic infections.

Much of the bacterial infection is passed on in communal rinsing tanks that make your toilet bowl look appetising. Birds that are dead or diseased are often slaughtered anyway and end up in the supermarket. And, time after time, these hellholes get the US Department of Agriculture stamp of approval. The poultry industry may not be ideal here, but it's nowhere near the nightmare that persists in America.

So, anyway, what happens when you irradiate food? Unlike some other means of food preservation, it doesn't leave chemical residues. But it does alter the molecular structure of some components to produce free radicals, including known cancer-causing agents like benzene and formaldehyde. It can also degrade the nutritional content of fresh food.

Nasty, huh? Well, you can create 90% of the same free radicals by cooking food, especially if you like burning things on the barbecue. And, as any number of food industry fact sheets will tell you, irradiation at the proper levels will only degrade the nutritional content of fresh food about as much as cooking or canning does.

Other qualified people think it's a bit more serious than that. One study found that the level of vitamin C in potatoes was reduced by 50% after a standard dose of radiation.

But in any case, is it desirable to sell already degraded fresh food which will be further degraded before being eaten? Why would you do that? In order to keep food on the shelves for longer, of course. Which brings us to the same question I have about genetically modified foods: Sorry, but what's in it for me?

The US Centre for Science in the Public Interest says much the same thing. Its director Michael Jacobson says irradiation is viewed by the meat industry in particular as a quick and easy fix for long-term, systemic problems.

He has says his organisation doesn't like the idea of "dirty food on which bacteria have been killed" and that "It would be very tempting for the food industry to have very sloppy practices, and then to cover that up with a blast of radiation at the end of the line."

Even if you do believe irradiation is completely and utterly safe - indeed, necessary - you can't deny that the potential for abuse is extremely unnerving. That's the view taken by Consumer International, which would rather see money spent on cleaning up the food industry and regards irradiation as an absolute last resort which should be very tightly governed where it is permitted.

It would help too if people could learn how to cook things properly, and to regard raw chicken as the most dangerous thing in their kitchen.

There may be benefit, as Creech said this week, in allowing certain foodstuffs, such as spices, to be irradiated rather than fumigated as they currently are. But I'm convinced that irradiating fresh food as a matter of course is utter madness - and that we should keep a very close eye indeed on the whole business.

Anyway, speaking of madness, hello to the folks from the Water Pressure Group, who, having campaigned for the return of Auckland water to "democratic control" showed their respect for democracy by refusing to let anyone else say their piece at a council debate - to the point where the police had to be called.

What the council has decided to do - slash the fixed charge, put more emphasis on actual water use and offer rates rebates to low-income families and others disadvantaged by the system - should, to my mind be an end to it. And you'll notice who made that decision: the democratically elected council.

I don't want wastewater charges going back into the rates. We tried than and successive generations of bastard Tory councillors spent our water money winning elections with promises to keep the rates down. Result: don't swim at Auckland beaches for three days after it rains - unless you have a thing about poos.

I can only again refer these people to Tim Wilson's great Metro feature about Auckland's water woes, wherein he testified that about the only thing anyone involved in trying to make the system work could agree on was that Metrowater was "100 times better than the council".

Speaking of which, keep that man on the local body round - if that's not too horrible a sentence for any human. His story on the Papakura District Council in the current Metro - and, oh, how recently were they the National Party's poster child for local government reform? - is priceless.

Priceless in another way is Bill English's big campaign to make tax an election issue by basically lying about Labour's budget policy. It might work, but it looks pretty desperate. But not as desperate as Richard Prebble's attempts to get himself noticed. How desperate? Can you say 'Sunday News Give Us a Clue?'. Yes. Really.

And "hell" and "o" to Christian Heritage leader Graham Capill who, flushed with his success in getting a couple of Keith Haring paintings classified R18, has gone to war on the South Park movie, which has attracted a mere R16 rating from the censor.

It's not just the "pornographic perversity and incessant obscenities and blasphemies," says Capill: "Incredible as it may seem, the movie contains graphic homosexual activity involving Satan." Well bugger me. Or rather, bugger Satan. Who doesn't exist.

Anyway, if you're keen on that other well-known perverse activity, rock 'n' roll, get yourself down to Rock the Vote tonight at the Power Station. I'm assured it's purely a consciousness-raiser, no politics, and proceeds will go to Delta, Cabbage Bomber and the other bands. Voting is the new rock 'n' roll.

Oh, and go the All Blacks and the Black Caps and the All Whites. Aren't we good at sport lately? ...


    ==  ==      Russell Brown
  [ @ / @  ]                      
     /        ________________________________________
    (_)         "The views expressed on this programme
    ____)       are bloody good ones." Fred Dagg, 197?

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