Say no to raw dough, FDA says

via Moak: Say no to raw dough, FDA says,


As children, many of us share a favorite childhood memory of when our mom or grandma would bake cookies or cakes, and then let us kids scrape the mixing bowl. That sweet, doughy mixture was irresistible, and many of us carried on the tradition for our own kids. In many families, it’s a tradition that goes back generations. Nearly anyone who bakes will tell you that it’s hard to resist the urge to sample the goods before they go into the oven. (As somebody who loves to bake, I know this firsthand.)

It’s rare to hear about anyone actually getting sick from eating raw dough, but as our knowledge of food-borne illnesses has expanded, it’s become apparent that we’re taking a risk when we indulge our sweet tooth this way. Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned us again about the potential dangers after an outbreak of a particularly nasty bacteria called “Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O121” (a form of the well-known E.coli). Dozens of people in 20 states have so far been sickened by the outbreak, which has been linked to a Kansas City, Missouri, facility that made flour for General Mills.

According to the FDA, General Mills has voluntarily recalled 10 million pounds of flour sold under three brand names: Gold Medal, Signature Kitchen’s and Gold Medal Wondra. The varieties include unbleached, all-purpose and self-rising flours. Since flour has a long shelf life, the FDA advises you to throw them away.

General Mills noted the recall was based on an abundance of caution, although the link between illnesses and any particular product is hard to ascertain. “As a leading provider of flour for 150 years, we felt it was important to not only recall the product and replace it for consumers if there was any doubt, but also to take this opportunity to remind our consumers how to safely handle flour,” said Liz Nordlie, president of General Mills’ Baking division.

Jenny Scott, a senior adviser in FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, warns that eating raw dough or batter of any kind — or giving homemade “play clay” to kids — can make us sick. Scott notes any flour can contain bacteria that cause disease. The FDA-CDC investigation found some of the flours made in the Kansas City facility had been sold to restaurants that give kids dough to play with while waiting for their meals.

Usually, the concern is about salmonella and other disease-causing organisms found in raw eggs, but eggs aren’t always the culprit. “Flour is derived from a grain that comes directly from the field and typically is not treated to kill bacteria,” says Leslie Smoot, a senior adviser in FDA’s Office of Food Safety and a specialist in the microbiological safety of processed foods. “So if an animal heeds the call of nature in the field, bacteria from the animal waste could contaminate the grain, which is then harvested and milled into flour.”

Common symptoms for Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, the FDA notes, include diarrhea (often bloody) and abdominal cramps, although most people recover within a week. But some illnesses last longer and can be more severe, resulting in a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can occur in people of any age, but is most common in young children under 5, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems.

Parents of young children should be particularly aware. Some kindergartens and daycare facilities make “play clay” from raw dough. Even if kids don’t eat the dough, they can put their hands in their mouth after handling it. “Childcare facilities and preschools should discourage the practice of playing with raw dough,” the FDA notes.

The agency notes commercial products containing raw dough (such as the irresistible cookie-dough ice cream), are usually prepared using safe ingredients, such as pasteurized eggs and treated flour, so they aren’t a concern.

Here are some tips from FDA to help avoid getting sick from uncooked dough or batter:

  • Do not eat any raw cookie dough, cake mix, batter or any other raw dough or batter product that is supposed to be cooked or baked.
  • Follow package directions for cooking products containing flour at proper temperatures and for specified times.
  • Wash hands, work surfaces and utensils thoroughly after contact with flour and raw dough products.
  • Keep raw foods separate from other foods while preparing them to prevent any contamination that may be present from spreading. Be aware that flour may spread easily because of its powdery nature.
  • Follow label directions to chill products containing raw dough promptly after purchase until baked.

For more about the flour recall, visit


Sawdust in your Parmesan cheese?

Parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made of cow milk and originated from Parma, Italy. It is a hard and grating cheese.

via Moak: Sawdust in your Parmesan cheese?,, 3/24/2016

If you were watching the news a few weeks ago, you probably heard about the Great Parmesan Cheese Controversy. It made big news in an already-brimming news cycle, striking fear in the hearts of everyone who loves a dash of white, cheesy goodness on their pizza or pasta. Some Parmesan cheese, it turns out, might not be quite so pure as we thought it was.

The whole thing started in 2012, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration came down like a ton of bricks on a Pennsylvania company that made Parmesan cheese. The feds alleged that Castle Cheese Inc. was not only mixing its “100 percent” Parmesan with other cheeses in its “Grated Parmesan Cheese” product, it was also adding in a little something extra – cellulose, a plant material most commonly associated with wood pulp (sawdust, in some form or other). The owner of the company, Michelle Myrter, was expected to plead guilty to criminal charges, with a $100,000 fine.

Now, it must be noted that cellulose hasn’t been determined to be harmful. In fact, many of the products we consume every day contain some amount of cellulose. Therefore, it isn’t considered a health hazard, but the issue is rather whether the products have been misrepresented.

When Bloomberg News wrote about the case a few weeks ago, they also hired an independent lab to test common Parmesan cheese products from Kraft, Heinz, Wal-Mart and other brands, and found that some brands had more than eight percent of cellulose added as a filler.

After Bloomberg’s story caused a virtual meltdown among many consumer groups and the media, class-action lawsuits began to spring up. Most notably, Ann Yankee of Illinois filed a class action lawsuit against Kraft Heinz, Target and SuperValu in an Illinois federal court, claiming violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act. The suit was detailed on the website Top Class Actions.

Yankee’s lawsuit claims that since the products are “falsely advertised and the cellulose serves purely as a filler,” it violates the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act as well as various other consumer protection laws. She claims that “…had she known the Parmesan cheese products contained additives and fillers, she would not have purchased the items, or would not have paid as much for them.”

Hers wasn’t the only one. Lawsuits are pending in California, New York and probably other locations as well. The cheese-filled feeding frenzy has begun.

So the question remains: is it safe for you to eat products containing cellulose? Science says the answer is a resounding “yes.” Cellulose is not digested, but is a type of fiber — something many of us add to our diets anyway. And although marketing and labeling lies about food purity are and should be vigorously enforced, it should be for the sake of ensuring that food manufacturers and marketers are truthful. Very few claims that packaged food products contain “100 percent” of anything are truthful.

Most packaged foods contain a lot of things that you probably wouldn’t want to know about; they contain various chemicals and additives to make them more attractive, make them last longer, make them more tasty, and so on. And those are just the things that are intentionally placed in the products; if you really, really want to know about some of the disgusting things that are actually legal to allow in food products, visit (but keep your barf bag handy).

In fact, the only way to be certain your Parmesan cheese is, in fact, 100 percent Parmesan cheese. is to buy your own brick of Parmesan and grate it yourself. Even then, you don’t know what the cheese company may have done to the product during its manufacture, what was in the feed the cows ate, and on and on. You could go crazy going down that rabbit hole, so maybe it’s best not to go there.

Ultimately, whatever brand of “Parmesan” you choose to sprinkle on your penne pasta, just enjoy it. With the high levels of fat, salt and other unhealthy things in many of the tasty foods we love so much, the cellulose is probably the least of your worries.

Keep sweets away from your dogs

via Moak: Keep sweets away from your dogs,, 11/5/2015.

Sick dog facing camera on white background

Many households this week are likely to have a lot of extra candy lying around. While a few of us plan well enough to have used exactly the amount of sweets we bought before Halloween, it’s more likely you have a stash left over. I know that’s the case in the Moak household; we bought candy to prepare for the expected onslaught on Saturday, but we were away from the house on Friday night, only to find that most of the trick-or-treating had been moved to Friday because of anticipated bad weather. Now, it is just sitting there, tempting, beckoning.

But that candy can do a lot more damage than adding to your waistline or rotting your kids’ teeth; it could kill your dog. The chemical Xylitol, which was introduced years ago in some sugarless gum brands, has been found to be toxic to dogs. In some tragic cases, dogs who have gotten hold of a pack of xylitol-containing gum have died.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals announced some time ago that Xylitol could cause a massive release of insulin in dogs, leading to severe low blood sugar, seizures and liver failure. Xylitol is harmless to humans, but not so for our canine friends. CBS News reported on Tuesday that Xylitol may also be found in products like sugar-free candy, chewable vitamins and even peanut butter.

Over the past decade, the number of cases of Xylitol pet poisonings has skyrocketed, from just 82 reported cases in 2004 to more than 3,700 last year. That probably coincides with its increasing use in foods.

Dogs are naturally curious, and often go poking around for things to eat. Their sensitive noses may pick up the irresistible scent of sweets, and getting into the treat bag can introduce them to a host of bad things. Of course, it’s well known chocolate is bad for dogs.

“Chocolate contains theobromide, a chemical that is toxic to dogs in large enough quantities,” notes the website

But those aren’t the only foods that may be harmless to humans but can be problematic for pets. Here is a short list, from

  • Grapes and raisins have been linked to often-fatal kidney failure in dogs and cats. The cause is currently unknown.
  • Avocado leaves, pits, fruit and bark are all believed to be toxic to dogs and cats.
  • Garlic and onions contain chemicals that can damage red blood cells.
  •  Macadamia nuts have been linked to unexplained pet illnesses.

And that’s just foods; a number of houseplants, cleaning chemicals, antifreeze and other substances have been known to make dogs and cats sick or die. Of course, you can’t blame a dog for following his instincts, any more than you could blame a child for getting into the colorful bottles of cleaning chemicals you left under the kitchen sink. It’s on us pet owners to make sure our furry friends can’t get at anything that could be toxic.

Take a look around your house, and if necessary, get on the floor (a dog’s eye-level) to see what things might be a temptation. Lock up any “people” food, and investigate any plants or new substances you bring into the house. Veterinarians are united in their advice to serve your dog his pet food and only his pet food, no matter how much he begs or whines for the much-tastier people food. Some tasty pet treats might be OK as well; ask your vet for recommendations.

Just as we would childproof our homes if expecting a baby, we should all make sure we pet-proof our homes. Our pets give us lots of love, but ultimately, we’re responsible for making sure they’re healthy and happy and remain that way.

Mexican cilantro may be infection source

via Moak: Mexican cilantro may be infection source, published on, 8/6/2015.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been tracking a potent strain of an intestinal parasite called cyclospora cayetanensis, which causes an intestinal infection called cyclosporiasis and which can lead to a variety of severe gastrointestinal symptoms. So far, the CDC has identified 384 cyclosporiasis victims in 26 states. It’s not known whether Mississippi is included in that list. Clusters of the disease have been reported in Texas, Wisconsin and Georgia, according to the CDC.

Cyclosporiasis can make you very sick. Symptoms might include diarrhea, loss of appetite, weight loss, cramping, bloating, increased gas, nausea and fatigue. If you think you might be sick from eating any food, call your doctor as soon as possible.

The CDC has tracked the probable cause of the infection to fresh cilantro coming from the state of Puebla, Mexico. Cilantro (also known as coriander leaves) is a parsley-like herb, popular in Mexican dishes. Each year since at least 2012, cyclospora infections have been noted during the summer, but this year’s outbreak appears to be among the most severe, according to officials.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, along with the government of Mexico’s National Agro-Alimentary Health, Safety and Quality Service (SENASICA) and Federal Commission for the Protection from Sanitary Risks (COFEPRIS), are putting measures into place to better ensure the safety of cilantro shipments entering the United States, noted the FDA in an announcement last week.

The FDA and Mexican authorities inspected farms and facilities in Puebla and noted a variety of unsanitary conditions where the cilantro was being picked and processed.“Shipments of fresh cilantro from other states in Mexico will be allowed to enter and be released into the United States if sufficient documentation is submitted at entry demonstrating that the cilantro was harvested and packed outside of Puebla,” the FDA noted on its website. Additionally, the FDA, COFEPRIS, and SENASICA are working collaboratively to prepare a ‘Green List’ of companies in Puebla whose shipments of fresh cilantro will not be detained.”

In the meantime, the CDC urges consumers to be careful when preparing any fresh vegetables. Here are a few tips for safe handling:

  • Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water before eating, cutting or cooking. For firm fruits and vegetables, such as melons and cucumbers, use a clean produce brush, and cut away any damaged or bruised areas before preparing and eating.
  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water before and after handling or preparing fruits and vegetables.
  • Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils and counter tops with soap and hot water between the preparation of raw meat, poultry, and seafood products and the preparation of fruits and vegetables that will not be cooked.
  • Refrigerate any cut, peeled or cooked fruits and vegetables as soon as possible, or within two hours, and store them away from raw meat, poultry and seafood.

For more on the outbreak, visit this link.

What you should know about the Blue Bell recall

Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger print edition on 4/23/2015.

PDF: Blue bell recall

In what is fast becoming one of the most sweeping recalls in history, Texas-based Blue Bell Creameries has recalled all its products currently on the market due to potential infection by the potentially-deadly Listeria monocytogenes organism.

Mississippi is a big market for Blue Bell ice cream. Many Mississippians have come to love Blue Bell, as much for its reputation as an American business success story as for its tasty products. Since it’s likely that you have at least one Blue Bell product in your freezer, you need to know a few things, so we’ve pulled this information together for you.

What’s happened?

In the past several months, concerns about infection by the Listeria bacteria have increased, with the organism being found in a number of locations. Tuesday, Blue Bell announced it had initiated an “enhanced sampling program”, which revealed that Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream half-gallons produced on March 17 and March 27 contained the Listeria bacteria. Blue Bell noted in a news release that Listeria has been found in several different plants. As a safety precaution, Blue Bell is asking consumers to stop consuming Blue Bell products (including ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet and frozen snacks) and return them to the retailer for a refund.

The products being recalled were distributed to food service accounts, convenience stores and supermarkets in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma,  South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Wyoming and international locations. This is a voluntary recall by Blue Bell, and not a mandated recall by the government.

Why is it important?

Listeria is a dangerous organism, and can cause serious — and sometimes fatal — infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been following this outbreak for some time, and reports that 10 people have gotten sick, with three deaths reported in Kansas. Other cases of Listeria infection allegedly related to the outbreak have been reported in Arizona, Oklahoma and Texas.

In addition, pregnant women may face an increased risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, or life-threatening infection of the newborn.

What’s Blue Bell doing?

Blue Bell president Paul Kruse noted on the company’s website that the company is initiating a number of precautions, including implementation of a “test and hold” procedure for all products. This means that all products will be tested first and held for release to the market only after the tests show they are safe. A Blue Bell plant in Broken Arrow, Okla. has been closed until an investigation is completed.

In addition, Blue Bell is expanding its program to clean and sanitize equipment, expanding swabbing and testing all personnel by more than 800 percent, sending daily samples to a lab for testing, and enhancing employee training.

“At this point, we cannot say with certainty how Listeria was introduced to our facilities and so we have taken this unprecedented step,” Kruse said in a statement. “We continue to work with our team of experts to eliminate this problem… We want enjoying our ice cream to be a source of joy and pleasure, never a cause for concern, so we are committed to getting this right.”

What now?

Consumers are urged to gather any Blue Bell products and return them to the store where you purchased them for a refund.

Kruse said the company will resume making and selling ice cream products, but will make sure products are free of Listeria before doing so.

For more information about the recall, call 1-866-608-3940 Monday – Friday 8 a.m. – 8 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. CST or go to

Understanding Recalls

Originally printed in the Clarion-Ledger print edition on April 12, 2015. 

If you’ve visited the customer service desk at one of the big-box retailers, you may have noticed a bulletin board plastered with pieces of paper and titled “Recalls”. The other day, I noticed this board at a local store. The board was over to the side where it would hardly be noticed, and surrounded by shopping carts and other obstacles to make it difficult to read what was posted. Then I realized that few people would ever even be interested enough to read it anyway.

Many consumers are confused about what actually happens during a recall. It’s actually quite complicated; the public recall is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. But recalls can affect you and your family’s health and safety, so it’s a good idea to understand them.

Dozens of products are recalled every week. Most of the time these don’t make the news, but sometimes they do so – often in spectacular fashion. Just this week, a recall of Sabra Hummus made the national news because some cases of the popular dip had been found to be infected with the potentially-deadly Listeria organism. In that case, consumers were urged to throw away the product, or take it back to the store for a refund.

But wide news coverage is the exception, rather than the rule. Occasionally, we’ll write about a recall affecting our consumers, such as one we did a few months ago regarding potentially-dangerous tree stands. But choosing which recalls to highlight is a difficult decision for the media.

This week, besides the Hummus, there were recalls affecting children’s pajamas (fire risk), patio furniture (risk of breaking), Macadamia nuts (potential salmonella infection) and intravenous (IV) fluids (found to contain “particulate matter.”) In many of these cases, it’s unlikely you ever heard about it, unless you are in a business that sells or uses that product. In some cases (such as with some of the Macadamia nuts), they were sold in just a few locations.

Simply stated, a recall is an action to address an issue which has been found to be a concern for health, safety or which has the potential for harm. Recalls can originate with the manufacturer of the product (self-reporting), through reports from consumers or from government agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Once the problem is discovered, the company is required by law to report it, and work with the agency to issue a recall.

Recalls are an attempt at damage control, but are usually only partially effective. For example, if you buy a swing set for your child and the bolts holding the swing on the frame break and send your child to the emergency room, you (or your attorney) might call the company to complain. Upon investigating, the company finds that a single box of bolts was made of substandard metal, but now the problem is all over the country because the bolts are in hundreds of units.

For lots of reasons (potential lawsuits among them), the company issues a recall. But there’s a problem: they don’t really know who bought those swing sets. They only know that they were sold in certain toy stores, in certain cities.

There is a lot riding on these damage control efforts. Not only does a company have the moral and ethical responsibility to do what it can to stop potential harm, it must also deal with potential lawsuits. And a company’s response can make or break its reputation. Perhaps most famously, drug maker McNeil has been lauded for their quick recall in response to deliberate poisoning of Tylenol in 1982, leading to seven deaths. But many other companies have gone out of business because they didn’t get out front of the issue and take responsibility.

So, how do you know about recalls, and what to do about them? First, there are lot of good websites out there which alert the public. For example, the CPSC site ( has current recall information on its Recalls tab. And the CPSC will also send you emails about recalls as well, just go to the Stay Connected link on the right side of the CPSC Recalls page.

Also, there are a lot of other government agencies and industry groups which alert the public about recalled products, including the FDA (food and drugs), USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (food safety issues), American Veterinary Medical Association (recalls affecting pets), and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (vehicles, tires, child safety seats, etc.)

Secondly, there are many free mobile apps for all platforms which will provide you with alerts, often customizable to your situation. Popular apps include Recalls and Parenting Ages and Stages, available on the iTunes store, and Recall Watch, available for Android.

Food storage about more than expiration dates

Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger on 9/12/2014.

PDF:Expiration dates aren’t cut and dry

Periodically, my wife and I make a point of going through the refrigerator to see if anything has expired or is no longer edible. Usually, we consume just about everything, but sometimes, we miss one. The other day, I found a couple of small packets of baby carrots that had been hiding, unopened, behind a tub of margarine. Upon picking them up, I discovered that they were way past their “use-by” date, and had developed into an interesting science experiment in several vivid colors. They won’t be wasted, though; they’ll help enrich the next batch of garden compost.

Knowing how long to keep food and when to throw things away is an imperfect science. There is a lot of debate over, say, whether to refrigerate the ketchup, or whether to refrigerate bananas at all. One thing that contributes to the confusion is the fact that food companies use different systems to tell you when food is fresh, or when it gets past its prime.

According to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), there are three separate dating systems used in the food industry:

“Sell-by” date, which tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before this date to ensure maximum quality.”Use-by” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product. “Best if used by (or before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

Interestingly, there is no federal law requiring food companies to put dates on their products (other than infant formula), and the dates that are on the packages are usually to help you decide when food tastes the best, not for safety reasons. And just because a product has gone past its “use-by” date doesn’t mean it’s not safe or OK to eat. Therefore, it’s important to know how long to keep food, and under what conditions.

The risk from foodborne illnesses is real. In 2011, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control(CDC) estimated, about one in six Americans got sick or died from foodborne illnesses. Of those, 128,000 were hospitalized and 3,000 died. The five main culprits were (in order of the number of cases) Norovirus, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter and Staph Aureus; Salmonella was the most deadly, claiming 378 lives.

So, how do you know whether to keep it or throw it away? Fortunately, there is a great solution from the FMI, called the Food Keeper database. This tool uses a simple, searchable database, which gives you advice on whether or not to refrigerate, how long you should keep it, and other advice, such as cooking tips.

So, I gave it a try. Looking up “carrots” in the database, I found “Carrots and Parsnips”. Clicking it, I found that you can refrigerate them for 2-3 weeks, and 10-12 months in the freezer. Also, the site advised that carrots be blanched or cooked before freezing.

Here are a few pointers from the FMI and other sources:

1. In most cases, the quicker fruits and veggies are consumed, the better. Some decay faster than others, so it’s a good idea to know how long it’s OK to keep them (checking to see whether it’s growing something purple is not a good indicator.)

2. Always wash your hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before preparing foods and after handling raw meat, poultry, or seafood. And (eech factor) remember to always wash your hands after using the bathroom. Wash produce thoroughly just before eating, and dry with paper towels. Not only will washing the food help wash out bacteria, it can also help get rid of insecticides and other chemicals.

3. Understand the food temperature “danger zone,” at which dangerous can grow, especially in meats, poultry and seafood. The U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that the danger zone is considered to be between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. So, we’re advised to either keep food hot or keep it cold.

Although these precautions are not a 100 percent guarantee against foodborne illnesses, you can reduce your risk by understanding the serious business of storing and handling your food.

Pedigree recall includes Miss. stores

Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger on 8/30/2014.

PDF: Pedigree recall includes Miss. stores

Dog food manufacturer announces recall of some PEDIGREE® Dog food sold in Miss.

Mars Petcare US has announced a voluntary recall of 22 bags of PEDIGREE® Adult Complete Nutrition dry dog food products due to the possible presence of a foreign material, according to a news release from the U.S. Food and Dug Administration (FDA).

The bags were sold between Aug. 18 and 25 at Dollar General Stores in Vicksburg and Magnolia, as well as in other Dollar General stores in Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee.

The bags were produced in one manufacturing facility, and shipped to one retail customer. The facility production line has been shut down until this issue is resolved.

Affected bags may contain small metal fragments, which could have entered the packages during the production process. The foreign material is not embedded in the food itself, but may present a risk of injury if consumed.

“We encourage consumers who have purchased affected product to discard the food or return it to the retailer for a full refund or exchange,”
noted the release. “We have not received any reports of injury or illness associated with the affected product.”

To identify the 15-pound bags of
PEDIGREE® Adult Complete Nutrition dry dog food, look for a lot code printed on the back of the bag near the UPC code that reads 432C1KKM03 and a Best Before date of 8/5/15.

The FDA notes that no other PEDIGREE® products are affected, including any other variety of dry dog food, wet dog food or dog treats.

Pet owners who have questions about the recall should call 1-800-305-5206 or visit

MS to get $14K from “Four Loko” settlement

via MS to get $14K from “Four Loko” settlement | Consumer Watch,, 4/1/2014

If you have never heard of “Four Loko”, you may be forgiven (and are probably a non-drinker over 30). But Mississippi is $14,047.62 richer today, thanks to a settlement negotiated by Attorney General Jim Hood and colleagues.

The malt-liquor drinks, marketed largely as energy drinks to young people, were so named because of their four primary additives: alcohol, caffeine, taurine and guarana. Reports indicate the drinks at one time contained up to 12.5 percent of alcohol by volume. (The “Loko” part I will leave to your imagination.)

The primary concern among regulators such as the FDA, Hood and others is that combining alcohol with caffeine can magnify the effects of intoxication and possibly lead to other health issues. The drinks were marketed heavily on college campuses, and their popularity should come as no surprise.

The company was started by a couple of college friends at the University of Ohio, looking for a way to cash in on the energy drink craze. The mix of alcohol with caffeine and other additives was reportedly inspired by watching vagrants drink on street corners. And spiking their drink with various flavors helped sales skyrocket.

On Monday, Hood announced that Phusion Projects, LLC (which manufactured Four Loko and other brands), agreed to pay $400,000, according to a release by Hood’s office.

“The settlement resolves allegations that Phusion marketed and sold flavored malt beverages, namely ‘Four Loko,’ in violation of consumer protection and trade practice statutes by promoting Four Loko to underage persons, promoting dangerous and excessive consumption of Four Loko, promoting the misuse of alcohol, and failing to disclose to consumers the effects and consequences of drinking alcoholic beverages combined with caffeine,” Hood noted in the release.

“Instead of kids passing out when they drank too much, we found that the caffeine mixed with alcohol made them stay awake and drink even more,” said Hood. “It was creating turbo charged drunks. The company was using flavors to market the beverage to underage kids.”

The settlement prohibits Phusion from manufacturing “caffeinated alcoholic beverages and reform how it markets and promotes its non-caffeinated flavored malt beverages, including Four Loko.” In addition, the company is barred from promoting the beverages, as well as a variety of other related activities.

The attorneys general of Arizona, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Washington, along with the City Attorney of San Francisco participated in the settlement.

Food expiration dates may not mean what you think they mean

When we buy milk in the Moak household, we rarely pay attention to the expiration dates. We go through so much milk that it really doesn’t matter. But I confess that, sometimes, we find things in our fridge that have been there so long that the resulting colorful organisms have developed their own little civilizations. With tongs or some other utensils, and afraid to even look at them, we throw them away in disgust. We do look at expiration dates on other perishable products, such as eggs and canned biscuits, but rarely check things like canned foods.

Expiration dates are presumably there for a reason: they help give us a reasonable date to plan our usage of food (if you actually look through your fridge once in a while). Conventional wisdom suggests that they’re based on a real expectation of when the food will become either inedible or borderline dangerous. But a recent article by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that expiration dates are actually issued in an arbitrary sort of way, and are not really regulated as many believe.

Actually, the NRDC reports, these dates are really just suggestions about when the food is at peak quality. But consumers needlessly throw away millions of pounds of food each year based on those expiration dates; much of which in reality is perfectly safe. According to the study, a whopping 40 percent of food in the U.S. (worth $165 billion!!!) is thrown away. In a world where many go hungry, that seems like a travesty. And consumers are just the tip of the food-waste iceberg; manufacturers and retailers throw away huge amounts of perfectly-good food because its expiration date is near or has just passed.

The study included the prestigious Harvard Food and Law Policy Institute. The report is worth reading, and has a lot of suggestions for food producers, retailers and consumers. For example, the study suggests that a more robust set of standards is needed, to ensure that the expiration dates are based on realistic factors, and not easily misinterpreted.

If there were a better system, food banks and other charities could benefit, and consumers could save millions. Here are some suggestions from the study:

Make “sell by” dates invisible to the consumer. Although they may be useful for retailers, they can confuse consumers.

Establish a reliable, coherent, and uniform consumer-facing dating system, including standard, clear language for both quality-based and safety-based date labels.

Include “freeze by” dates and freezing information where applicable: Promote the use of “freeze by” dates on perishable food products to help raise consumer awareness of the benefits of freezing foods and the abundance of food products that can be successfully frozen in order to extend shelf life.

Remove or replace quality-based dates on non-perishable, shelf-stable products: Removing “best before” or other quality dates from shelf-stable, non-perishable foods for which safety is not a concern would reduce waste of these products and increase the weight given to labels placed on products that do have safety concerns. Some type of date may still be useful, such as an indication of shelf life after opening (e.g. “Best within XX days of opening”) or the date on which the product was packed (e.g., “Maximum quality XX months/years after pack date”).

Ensure date labels are clearly and predictably located on packages: Consumers should be able to easily locate and understand date labeling information on packages, perhaps through the use of a standard “safe handling” information box, akin to the “nutrition facts” panel.

Employ more transparent methods for selecting dates: Create a set of best practices that manufacturers and retailers can use to determine date labels for products, and consumers can learn about if interested.

Increase the use of safe handling instructions and “smart labels”: Provide clear, pertinent food safety information alongside date labels. This could include additional phrases, QR codes that allow consumers to scan for more information, or “smart labels” like time-temperature indicators.

Finally, the study suggests, we consumers can make changes including educating ourselves on food storage. This useful infographic can help you understand how to best use your refrigerator.

Paying more attention to things like this can ultimately save us all money, preserve valuable food and even keep us from having to get out the tongs and hold our noses. That in itself is a win.

(Originally published by the Clarion-Ledger on 11/16/2013.)