Cancer, burnt toast and roast potatoes


I should think the entire western world is now afraid to eat their roast potatoes.  This comes after the international media coverage  of the UK Food Standards Agency’s new campaign “"Go for Gold” , [@CABI_Health 23rd Jan ], which hopes to encourage us (UK) to reduce acrylamide in our diet by cooking starchy foods to a pale golden colour and no further.

Speaking as someone who spent nearly 20 years in labs handling acrylamide on a daily basis (for analysing proteins), I can’t say I am too worried about the acrylamide content of my Sunday lunch roast potatoes  and burning my toast.

But what about the general public? Should they be nervous…so what is behind the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) campaign?

It’s their recently published Total diet study of inorganic contaminants, acrylamide & mycotoxins (TDS-2014), covering years 2014 and 2015 for the UK, and how the results fit with European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) recommendations.

A total diet study differs from other food surveys in that foods are firstly prepared and cooked for consumption. The aim of TDS-2014 was to estimate dietary exposure to contaminants for population age groups: it assessed 138 food categories, and for each category pooled food items collected from 24 UK towns.

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Xmas camels, tobacco and kids

Camel_7362C     Copyright: W.Norris

My daughter decided to make this camel for the annual school Xmas tree competition. To her, at age 11, camels are “cuddly” and linked to the Three Wise Men, part of the Christmas Story. To me, whilst overseeing her sewing efforts, I’d made the link to the 2 empty packets sitting on my desk waiting for me to write a global health blog.

       You can see them either side here…   Fags_7366 Fags_7367

They are cigarette packets but actually only one has ever contained tobacco…can you tell which? Of course you can: it's the one which says Smoking Kills. But that's a UK packet, you don't see that message dominating on packets sold elsewhere…And you have to be able to read.

And that’s the point.


 Candy (sweets) that mimic tobacco products

This is marketing at its best… the package shape and silver foil construction, the  same azure blue sky (it really is), the association of Camel or Sphinx with the romance of Egypt and the  yellow desert: these link the two packets to each other & therefore their contents. But the packet with the Sphinx contained chocolate sticks covered in rice paper, accurate copies of adult cigarettes, and was purchased by my daughter from her favourite sweet shop. She loved them; I objected.

And I had to explain why, because she didn’t know. She had not made the connection.

But I had. When I was a child, pink-tipped white candy sticks were my favourite and I knew that they were a kids' version of adult cigarettes.  Kids love to pretend to be adults. The reason I knew of course was that THEN many adults including my father smoked. I even used to buy him mini-cigars for Xmas, despite the fact that I loathed the smell (it made me feel sick). The white candy sticks are still on sale but they are poor imitations of cigarettes so the link to smoking is now so remote that I’ve not be too worried.

Sphinx candy sticks are a different matter. They operate on a much subtler level.

We are still trying to stop children and adolescents from taking up tobacco smoking, even though overall adult smoking is in decline and is reinforced by the ban on smoking in public places in many European countries (Although Belgium has just relaxed that!).

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Sympathy for the devil

Scientists working on trying to control the facial tumour disease which threaten to wipe out the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) have increased their understanding the disease. The Tasmanian devil is the largest carnivorous marsupial remaining and is now found only on the island of Tasmania, having been exterminated from the Australian mainland. The disease that is threatening this endangered species is a transmissible neoplasm that grows on the face leading to death from starvation. These creatures, immortalized by the Looney Tunes cartoon  character ‘Taz, are about the size of a small dog and have a predisposition to aggressive behaviour, as well as unearthly screeching and raucous communal feeding that has earned them their name. Their aggressive behaviour is probably the most likely way in which the disease is transmitted, through biting as they fight over food and mates.

Devil facial tumour disease was first seen in 1995 and has caused between 20-50% reduction in the devil population. More than half of the State of Tasmania is affected. Two ‘insurance’ populations of disease-free devils are being established at an urban facility in the Hobart suburb of Taroona and on Maria Island off the east coast of Tasmania. The decline in devil numbers is an ecological problem, since its presence in the Tasmanian forest ecosystem is believed to have prevented the establishment of the Red Fox, illegally introduced to Tasmania in 2001. Foxes are a problematic invasive species in all other Australian States, and the establishment of foxes in Tasmania may hinder the recovery of the Tasmanian Devil.

The scientists from the University of Sydney School of Veterinary Science working on the disease are saying that the tumour probably arose from a single individual and has spread on to other devils. The immune system of the original animal probably did not recognize the tumours as foreign, and because Tasmanian devil population is now so genetically similar, their bodies do not recognize that the tumours are foreign cells and so do not attack them. Tasmanian devils have lost genetic diversity in the most important gene region for the immune system, the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC). The devils all had a similar MHC type to the tumour. There appears to be some similarities with a transmissible cancer of dogs (canine transmissible venereal tumour).

There is a pilot program on the Tasman Peninsular where all the diseased devils captured are killed. There is currently no test for infected animals that do not yet show the neoplasm, so it is only those showing visible signs of the disease that are removed. There seems to be some evidence that this is working to protect the overall population, because, over time, the average age of the animals they capture has become older, suggesting that more animals are avoiding the cancer and surviving longer. But the program is expensive, and it is not clear how effective the programme will be in stopping the disease.

The problem seems, then, to be a result of the lack of genetic diversity in a small population. There are many other endangered species of wildlife that have populations as small or smaller and could suffer the same fate, falling to new or emerging diseases. Looking through the CAB Abstracts Database to see if there was any other information on biodiversity threatened by disease, I came across a paper by Maillard and Gonzalez entitled Biodiversity. The problems caused by lack of genetic diversity in making the population open to infectious organisms are described. The disease in the Tasmanian devil shows that certain neoplasms can also exploit the restricted gene pool.

Maillard, J. C.; Gonzalez, J. P. 2006. Biodiversity and emerging diseases. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2006, Vol. 1081, pp. 1-16 Record No: 20073114695