Owen McShane examines last year’s Great Soya Sauce Scare
There’s a lot of Budget Science going on.
Budget Science is not low cost science. It’s certainly not amateur science driven solely by the noble search for truth. Budget Science is state-funded science which jacks up next year’s funding.
The great soya sauce scare was a fine example. The Ministry of Health (MoH), with the enthusiastic support of our tabloid media, panicked the nation into believing that Soya Sauce would strike us down with cancer. The health police swooped on supermarkets and hauled away the stuff of healthy stir-fries, while leaving cigarettes safely on the shelves above the check-out.
How did this happen?
The story begins when some lab somewhere carried out the notoriously unreliable rodent test on a group of chemicals known as chloropropanols. Sure enough these chemically-overloaded lab rats got cancer. We should remember that just about all foods – organic, GM or whatever – contain scores of chemicals which have failed the rodent test. There are at least 12 of them in your morning cup of coffee.
Anyhow, one of these chloropropanols, known as 3-MCPD, occurs in foods which have used acid hydrolysis, roasting, and similar processes to enhance their flavour.
A laboratory in England soon announced a test to detect 3-MCPDs down to one part in a million or lower. The European Food Safety Agency then decided that this detectable level should establish the safe level.
You can be sure that “safe” levels set by “detectable levels” are unsupported by any epidemiological evidence whatever. But such standards sell a lot of tests and keep lots of lab-workers busy.
And so the EU bureaucrats set the labs to work testing soya sauce, which was suitably foreign and known to contain 3-MCPDS. Lo and behold, several brands failed the test.
The news spread rapidly round the world. Scaring the hell out of people is a shortcut to fame for both young scientists and even younger media hacks.
However, not everyone knee-jerked into action. The Canadian Cancer Society reached the following measured conclusions:
- 3-MCPD is a member of the chloropropanol group of chemicals and is a possible carcinogen in humans.
- Health Canada has reviewed the situation and has found there is no health risk to Canadians from existing stocks of soy and oyster sauces.
- Continuous lifetime exposure to high levels of 3-MCPD could pose a health risk to Canadians, but future imported stocks will be below the legal tolerance limit of 1.0 ppm. The Canadian authorities saw no point in raiding their supermarkets.
So why did we wage war on soya sauce? After all, the European Food Agency found quantifiable levels of 3-MCPD in breads, savoury crackers, toasted biscuits, toasted cereals, cheeses, doughnuts, burgers and salamis.
The survey also found 3-MCPD in a long list of food ingredients, including bread-crumbs, meat extracts, modified starches (used in glazes, yoghurt, soups and ready-made meals), malt and malt-based ingredients (used in confectionery, cereal products, sauces, bakery products, snack seasonings, beers and malted drinks).
Funny that. I don’t remember our health police clearing the shelves of cheddar, Weet-Bix, yoghurt and beer.
Surely the cancer risk will be determined by the total volume of foods containing 3-MCPD we ingest regularly over long periods – not the level within a single sauce used occasionally at best.
So what was going on here? Why did our ever-so-caring Ministry of Health decide to scare the hell out of us, when their peers in other countries found more useful things to do? How much extra risk did soya sauce pose to our biscuit, cereal, cheese and cracker-chomping pop-ulation?
The answer is simple – Budget Science ruled.
While the Europeans were demonising soya sauce, our own MoH was being criticised for failing to develop a rational, risk-based, food safety policy. The Cabinet was debating whether to shift responsibility for the Food Act from the MoH to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (Maf) under a new Food Assurance Authority. MoH officials saw millions of dollars disappearing into the maws of Maf. So they raided the supermarkets to show their determination to protect us from Asian imports.
It didn’t work – the funds were transferred to Maf anyway.
But what about our health? There is no epidemiological evidence connecting soya sauce to cancer rates. Indeed Asians have low rates of digestive tract cancer.
We do know that New Zealand’s high rate of bowel and stomach cancer is caused by our low intake of dietary fibre. We eat too much meat and too few vegetables.
Those New Zealanders who found no soya sauce on the shelves were probably going to make a stir-fry for dinner. Stir fries are low in meat and high in fibre. Budget Science probably persuaded lots of them that sausages and chips are safer.
A few more New Zealanders may die of cancer.
Budget Science is like that.