Thursday, March 20, 2008

End to animal testing historic agreement

A momentous decision of great historic significance has been made by three US agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Toxicology Program (NTP) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

On 14th February 2008 these government agencies have signed a “Memorandum of Understanding”, i.e. a legal document about an agreement among parties, aiming to end animal testing of chemicals and drugs for human use. The implementation of this ambitious plan will take years, but it is certainly an earthshattering event.

Considering that the USA is the country where the highest number of animal experiments are performed in the West (although, as always with vivisection, the exact figures are difficult to know) and the one whose scientific community has the greatest power, and also considering that these three agencies have been among the biggest funding bodies of animal testing, the news seems almost too good to be true.

But it is true. It appears that the various scientific inadequacies, best summarized in the lack of predictive value, of the animal experimentation method have finally been acknowledged by American regulatory agencies at the federal level.

Even the head of the NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute, Francis Collins, is involved in the new plan and said in reference to animal testing: “It was expensive, time-consuming, used animals in large numbers, and it didn't always work” [notice that wonderful use of the past tense].

PETA thinks that his invovement is a good sign, and adds: “…it’s going to take an intense, focused effort on the scale of the human genome project to get the job done.”

The federal agencies' new agreement is the product of work started in cooperation in 2005 by the EPA and the NTP to speed up toxicological testing. The recent, breakthrough decision was preceded last June by a study by the US National Research Council, which shows that a clear change of direction has been taking place. The study said:

“Recent advances in systems biology, testing in cells and tissues, and related scientific fields offer the potential to fundamentally change the way chemicals are tested for risks they may pose to humans. …The new approach would generate more relevant data to evaluate risks people face, expand the number of chemicals that could be scrutinised, and reduce the time, money, and animals involved in testing.”

There is a reference here to the non-animal methods which, according to the newly-announced agreement, will replace animal testing: essentially, in vitro cultures of human cells and tissues and computer-driven testing machines.

The EPA has already started evaluating 300 chemicals with the new techniques.The first phase should be finished this year, saccording to the director of the National Center for Computational Toxicology Robert Kavlok.

Thousands of chemicals can be tested at the same time by a method that uses a glass tray with 1,536 tiny wells with the width of a fraction of a millimeter. Each well holds a few hundred human cells grown in a test tube. A testing machine, guided by a computer, drips a different chemical into each well and after some time it shines a laser through each well to count the remaining cells. A computer analyzes the toxicity of each compound depending on how the cells react. All the data discovered will be put into a public database.

The agencies will begin by testing compounds previously tested on animals to confirm that the alternative tests using cells are accurate.

The best piece of news is perhaps all in this comment by Elias Zerhouni, director of the NIH. He said that animal testing won't disappear overnight, but the agencies' work signals the beginning of the end.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Carcinogens, food poisoning and meat

Cancer-causing substances

Meat contains a number of carcinogens. These include the nitrites used in meat processing, and residues of the many antibiotics routinely used in modern factory farming. Hardly surprising, then, that vegetarians have a 30% lower cancer rate than meat eaters, although carcinogens are not the only reason of this great difference in cancer incidence between the two groups.

Plant foods contain several substances which are believed to protect against cancer. Indoles, lignans, isoflavones, protease inhibitors and others have all been shown to be potent anti-carcinogens and may play an important role in the lower cancer incidence among vegetarians.

In contrast, cooked meat and fish contains carcinogens known as heterocyclic amines (HAs). These are present at high levels in the urine of people consuming cooked meats and have been shown to be metabolically active in humans. Evidence suggests meat-derived HAs may play a role in breast, colon and pancreatic cancer (Snyderwine 1994).

Food Poisoning

Studies have demonstrated that 53% of bovine carcasses and 83% of pig carcasses were contaminated with E coli. 18% of raw chicken from Britain and 64% of imported poultry contained salmonella. In a 1996 study, more than half of UK-bred chickens purchased from retail outlets contained campylobacter.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are more than 20,000 E. coli infections from meat every year in the United States.

Meat and milk account for most of the food poisoning in Britain, some of which lethal. Bacteria, which become resistant to the antibiotics that are continually pumped into farm animals, are passed on from livestock to human consumers, along with foecal contamination. Many cows in Britain's herds are infected with mastitis, the catarrh-like discharge which is not curbed by antibiotics. British milk is among Europe's worst: a diluted solution of hormones, antibiotics and pus.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Mesothelioma and asbestos

What is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a form of malignant cancer affecting the mesothelium, a protective lining that covers most internal organs of the body. The mesothelium has different names in different parts of body.

The disease’s most common forms are peritoneal mesothelioma and pleural mesothelioma. In the former, cancer cells develop in the peritoneum, the lining of the abdominal cavity.

In the latter, which is the most widespread form of mesothelioma, the affected site is the pleura, the membrane surrounding the lungs and lining the chest cavity.

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer, which in humans is almost invariably caused by exposure to asbestos, a material used in various sectors, in particular in the building industry. Most people (70-80 percent) who develop malignant mesothelioma have worked in jobs where they inhaled or were exposed to asbestos particles, asbestos fibres and dust.

As in all cancers, in both peritoneal mesothelioma and pleural mesothelioma cells multiply in excess and without control.

Mesothelioma prognosis is usually not good; it is a fatal disease, and death often occurs within twelve months after diagnosis.

Mesothelioma treatment exists, in the forms of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and immunotherapy, but it has not so far been successful. Mesothelioma is generally resistant to treatment.

Malignant mesothelioma and asbestos: what delayed recognizing the link?

The link between cancer and asbestos in humans became known on the basis of clinical studies in the early 20th century, so much so that the first lawsuits against asbestos manufacturers were in 1929.

Following this discovery, researchers extensively tried to induce cancer in laboratory animals by exposing them to asbestos. The results of animal experiments were disappointing, because the painful lesions which were produced in animals disappeared after asbestos was withdrawn, so in them, unlike in humans, the disease was not permanent.

The current prevailing paradigm of biomedical sciences is such that only tests on animals in laboratory conditions can confirm or disproof a hypothesis. This is what scientists have been trained to believe. So if, say, a correlation between a chemical substance and the development of a disease is observed in human subjects through clinical studies of patients or epidemiological studies (surveying large numbers of people), that is not considered scientific evidence until it is “validated” on some other animal species in the controlled conditions of a lab.

This reliance on animal research has had the effect that the biomedical establishment did not believe in the link between asbestos and human cancer for several decades.

In 1965 the Annals of the New York Academy of Science “reassuringly” wrote:

“…a large literature on experimental studies has failed to furnish any definitive evidence for induction of malignant tumours in animals exposed to various varieties and preparations of asbestos by inhalation or intratracheal injection”. [my emphasis]

But the human-based evidence continued to grow. Many epidemiological studies have over the years established an association between exposure to asbestos and the development of several conditions, including diffuse pleural thickening, lung cancer, carcinoma of the larynx, asbestosis, gastrointestinal tumours, peritoneal mesothelioma and pleural mesothelioma.

The link between asbestos and mesothelioma was finally accepted and led to legislation banning asbestos in many Western countries.

But it was only in the late 1970s and 1980s that this occurred. In 1989 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned all new uses of asbestos.

So animal tests delayed the introduction of these safety laws by several decades. This is a recurring pattern: something similar happened when animal experiments failed to confirm a connection between smoking and lung cancer in humans, and preventative measures in that area were delayed by many years.

Mesothelioma symptoms may appear as long as 30 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos. This explains why, despite a ban on asbestos use in the West, the incidence of malignant mesothelioma is still increasing.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The half vegan monks who are the world's healthiest people

In Italy we have a saying which translates into English as “discovering hot water”, i.e. discovering the obvious.

The medical world has recently found, through a series of in-depth, comprehensive studies including a 10-year study, that one of the healthiest groups of people on earth eats fresh food, mostly vegetables, fruits, pulses and grains, in moderation, in a stress-free environment, within a close supportive community.

These lucky guys are the monks of Mount Athos, in Greece.

They are vegan for more than half of the year, and predominantly vegetarian the other half.

Despite their average venerable age, the 2,000 monks living in 20 ancient monasteries have virtually no heart disease, no cardiac arrests and no strokes, a zero-incidence of Alzheimer’s disease which astonished the researchers conducting the various studies, and unusually low rates of cancer, which in the case of prostate cancer is 4 times lower than the international average. The latter finding is even more remarkable when you know that the monks in that particular investigation were aged between 50 and 104. Their rates of lung, bowel and bladder cancer are zero.

Mount Athos monasteries, called by the British Guardian newspaper “a land without butter”, follow some simple rules.

Monks never eat meat, and only very sporadically eat fish. The bulk of their diet is rice, pasta, bread, pulses, fruits, vegetables, all entirely seasonal and home-grown in the monastery’s gardens.

More than 200 days of the year, including all Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and some religious periods like Lent and Advent, are called “abstention days” and strictly vegan, with only one meal per day.

The rest are non-fast days, on which dairy products, eggs, fish and home-brewed wine can be had. In moderation.

Each meal lasts 20 minutes, after which a bell rings and the monks have to leave the table.

Some of the monks’ favourite dishes are pasta with tomato sauce (who can blame them), rice with boiled greens and leeks, beans with oil, an aubergine, tomato and potato stew called "briam toulou", and chickpea patties.

Since 1994, scientists have regularly tested the monks for cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s, some of the West’s most feared diseases, and found astounding low or even zero rates of them.

According to scientists, the single most important factor in the monks’ low cancer incidence is their high intake of plant foods.

Professor Haris Aidonopoulos, urologist at the University of Thessaloniki in northern Greece, said that the key seems to be a diet with plenty of plant proteins, free from meat. It has been proven, he continued, that a dietary intake of protein from lentils and beans prevents the absorption of toxins.

Claire Williamson, nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, concurs: “Using pulses as a source of protein is something we could all learn from. We tend to rely more on meat, fish, eggs and dairy for protein. Pulses are great for variety, and they provide lots of fibre and iron.”

Pulses, like peas, beans, lentils, soya, chickpeas, are also a low-fat source of protein.

Michalis Hourdakis, a dietician with Athens University, added: “Meat has been associated with intestinal cancer, while fruit and vegetables help ward off prostate cancer.”

“The monks have perfected the typical Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruit, vegetables, olive oil, bread, cereals and legumes and low in meat” said Maria Hassapidou, Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics at Thessaloniki in Greece. “On Mount Athos, they have gone one step further by forfeiting meat and only occasionally eating fish, which means they have a very low intake of saturated fats and a high intake of Omega-3 fatty acids, both of which help further to prevent the incidence of cardiovascular disease.”

Friday, March 07, 2008

Junk food diet is killing UK's pets, say vets of leading charity

This problem is not strictly speaking an animal rights one, but it shows how bad eating habits are spreading from humans to their non-human companions. Some time ago I would have said that what follows confirms the unhealthy effects of a meat-and-high-fat-based diet on human subjects, but now my awareness that this type of inference does not travel across species differences is more acute and therefore I am more cautious about extrapolating this way.

Huge food portions and junk food are making our pets obese and causing serious illness: this is a warning from one of Britain's leading pet charities, The Blue Cross.

The charity revealed that at least 20% of the pets it treats at its animal hospitals across the UK are now overweight. Indeed the problem is now so great that many Blue Cross hospitals have had to set up weight clinics. The Blue Cross's hospital staff think that the number of overweight pets they see now has more than doubled in the past 10 years.

The problem is so widespread that the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelt to Animals), the British main animal welfare association, has created a special website, for it, the above picture is its introductory graphic.

Burgers, hot dogs, curries, even baked beans and pizzas are responsible for the increase in pets' weight. High fat, high sugar diets and huge portions of pet food, says the charity, are causing pets to become seriously ill. Most overweight pets will have a health problem which has been caused by or exacerbated by their weight. It's very sad because many of these pets no longer have a decent quality of life as they have great difficulty doing the simplest of things such as walking or breathing.

Vets at The Blue Cross animal hospitals connect the increase in obesity among the British public and the same phenomenon in their pets. Not just cats and dogs - they see overweight budgies and rabbits too. They even had to put a pet rat to sleep after he became so obese from being fed curries that he could barely move: this case exemplifies the extent of the problem.

In the last few years Blue Cross vets have seen a rise in the number of pets with diabetes which they believe is a direct result of diet. Diabetes, respiratory problems, arthritis, heart disease and skin complaints can all be caused by animals being overweight.

The Blue Cross believes that the problem can often derive from a lack of education about which foods are suitable and unsuitable for their pets. Recently at a Blue Cross hospital a client brought her very overweight dog in. The dog had chronic joint problems, not helped by his excess weight, and is on anti-inflammatory drugs to help keep him comfortable. The dog's human companion was adamant that she was feeding her dog a sensible diet. However she did say that she had problems giving her dog the tablets, so every day she bought a chocolate bar to hide the tablets in.

So, there is a need to educate people on what they should and shouldn't be feeding their pets; The Blue Cross's weight clinics have also that function, and the charity has produced leaflets with advice. You can see them on its website where you can also vote in the survey "Is your pet overweight?" which is on its homepage at the moment.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Big changes for free-range hens & chickens in EU law & UK consumers demand

Good news on the free range front for hens and chickens. This year has started on a positive note in Europe and the UK with a series of news that promises well and has seen the involvement of the media in a useful role.

Hens kept in battery cages

EU confirms 2012 ban on battery cages

First, on 8th January 2008 the European Commission has upheld the decision made in 1999 by the European Union when it passed the Laying Hens Directive (1999/74/EC) to ban battery cages for hens by 2012 in all its member states. There will be no postponement, the Commission said in a published report.

There had been fears that the date of 2012 could be delayed, due to pressures from egg industry lobbies in many EU countries that continued for many years. The International Egg Commission had previously issued statements saying that the EU Laying Hens Directive sent a ripple around the world, with the global battery cage industry fearing a domino effect in other countries like the USA, Canada and Australia.

18 million is the number of hens still kept in battery cages a year in the UK, and over 200 million each year in the EU.

The European Commission’s report in January concluded that the cost of switching to cage-free eggs could be less than one cent of a euro per egg, but the higher welfare standards could give EU producers a commercial advantage over non-EU competitors.

“There is clearly a growing market for animal welfare friendly products,” states the report. “Recent Eurobarometer surveys on consumer attitudes to animal welfare revealed that the majority of respondents would be willing to pay more for eggs sourced through animal welfare friendly production systems.”

Explaining the reasons for the decision to uphold the ban, EU Commissioner for Health Mr Markos Kyprianou said: “The commission listened to the demands of EU consumers and has taken concrete action to improve the welfare of laying hens”.

And this brings us to the second good news item which highlights the power of the media when they get involved in animal issues.

Intensive farm of broiler chickens

UK consumers switch to free-range due to media coverage of factory farms cruelty

In the UK there has been a massive change in consumers habits following TV programs and newspaper coverage of poultry factory farming.

In January 2008 Channel 4, a major British TV network, broadcast a series of food programmes with celebrity chefs Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver launching a high-profile campaign to show the general public what battery cages and broiler sheds mean for the animals. At the same time the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) placed advertisements in national newspapers to create what appeared a coordinated campaign. The Independent, a major UK national newspaper, published secret footage from an intensive farm exposing the cruelty inflicted on broiler chickens.

The effects of this have been huge, and perhaps unpredicted.
Sales of free-range poultry shot up by 35 per cent in January 2008 compared with January 2007, while sales of factory-farmed chickens slumped by 7 per cent, according to a survey by the market research company TNS. The trend has continued throughout February as well.

Supermarkets shelves have been emptied of free-range birds, causing complaints from frustrated shoppers eager to embrace the movement away from factory farming.

The increase in free-range chickens sales would have been even higher if producers had been able to keep up with the demand.

“But the new national sales data suggests that shoppers' priorities have shifted dramatically. If the TNS data was extrapolated to the rest of the UK, it suggests sales of factory-farmed chickens dipped by 10 million, while shoppers bought 4.4 million more free-range chickens. Overall, chicken sales were down by 4.8 per cent, perhaps because many people, when faced with an absence of free-range chicken, simply bought no chicken” writes The Independent.

Sainsbury's supermarket poultry department agreed with the picture of roaring free-range sales: "Sales are up 50 per cent year on year so it means we are selling more free-range than we have ever sold. It's also fair to say sales would have been much greater if we had stock to meet demand."

At the same time, several major British supermarket chains, Sainsbury's, Morrison, Co-op, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, will stop selling battery eggs or have already done so. Something similar is happening with the sale of intensively-reared broiler chickens. Within just two years, UK supermarkets could be selling only eggs laid by barn, free-range and organic free-range hens. The Co-op has also set a target of 2010 for being cage-free on all egg ingredients of all its own label products.

Hellmann's UK has made a groundbreaking decision to become free-range on all its mayonnaise by June 2008. A company representative had been questioned on its use of battery eggs during one of the Channel 4 programs on factory farming.

The tidal change in consumers demand has made front page news.

Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who hosted some of the anti-factory-farming shows, intends to make a new television programme on chickens later this year. He said: "I am delighted we have helped create this change and I am delighted that, two months after the show, there appears to be no letting up.”