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Health Highlights: Dec. 7, 2002

Biotech Company Fined $3 Million Kellogg's Recalls Pop-Tarts for Allergy Hazard New Safety Rules for U.S. Labs Stethoscope Ineffective on Obese Americans Pentagon Bans Ephedra Products Sellers of New Steroids Skirt Drug Laws, Report Says

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of The HealthDay Service:

Biotech Company Fined $3 Million

ProdiGene Inc., a Texas-based biotechnology company, must pay the U.S. Department of Agriculture more than $3 million for mixing genetically engineered corn containing an animal vaccine with soybeans intended for human consumption, the Associated Press reports.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced the company must also reimburse the federal government for 500,000 bushels of contaminated soybeans, valued at $2.7 million, and the cost to destroy them.

ProdiGene's CEO, Anthony G. Laos, apologized for the error. "We're very sorry for the mishap and have corrected it,'' he said.

The payment marks the first time the USDA has fined a biotechnology company for violating the Plant Protection Act. The 2-year-old law governs the transportation and planting of genetically engineered plants, the AP says.


Kellogg's Recalls Pop-Tarts for Allergy Hazard

Kellogg USA is recalling 730,000 packages of 8-count, 14-ounce Kellogg's Frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop-Tarts because they contain undeclared egg, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says.

People who have an allergy or severe sensitivity to egg run the risk of a life-threatening reaction if they eat the product.

Affected packages have a UPC code of 38000 31110 and a carton code of K-3111D printed on the top. "Better If Used Before" dates affected are:

SEP 23 03 CT NOV 23 03 CP
OCT 27 03 CP NOV 24 03 CP
OCT 28 03 CP NOV 25 03 CP
NOV 06 03 CT NOV 26 03 CP
NOV 07 03 CT NOV 27 03 CP
NOV 08 03 CT

The product was distributed throughout the United States and the Caribbean. No illnesses have been reported.

For more information, contact Kellogg at 1-877-877-4494.


New Safety Rules for U.S. Labs

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued new guidelines for laboratories handling dangerous pathogens, and they shift the focus from employee safety to biosecurity or public health protection.

The revised rules come in the wake of last year's spate of anthrax attacks. Experts suspect the anthrax sent through the mail originated in a U.S. laboratory, the Associated Press reports.

Recommendations for the facilities include monitoring pathogen storage areas, keeping specimens locked up, and allowing access only to authorized personnel.

Next week, the CDC will announce new rules requiring beefed-up security for laboratories dealing with "select agents," 42 pathogens and toxins such as anthrax, plague, and the Ebola virus. Among the regulations are employee background checks, lab registration with the CDC, lab inspections, and lab biosecurity plans.


Stethoscope Ineffective on Obese Americans

The medical profession's most recognizable symbol -- the stethoscope -- may become obsolete, as many doctors complain that the added layers of flab in overly fat Americans make it difficult to listen to patients' hearts.

A study of 500 doctors, published by the American Medical Association, reported that only 20 percent of physicians could correctly identify 12 basic heart sounds and heart murmurs using the 200-year-old tool, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Doctors blame a prevalence of obesity and noisy hospitals for the stethoscope's declining effectiveness. Instead, some physicians are using a hand-size portable ultrasound device that allows them a closer look at patients' major organs. The high-tech scan costs $12,000.


Pentagon Bans Ephedra Products

The Pentagon is forbidding its military installations worldwide from selling products containing ephedra, a chemical cousin to amphetamines that's often found in so-called "fat-burning" diet supplements, CBS News reports.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues its years-long debate about whether to ban the substance -- and whether it has the power to do so -- the Pentagon says it's time to act. Ephedra has been linked to an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and seizures in recent medical studies. And more than 30 active duty military personnel, some in their early 20s, have died while taking the products, CBS News says.

An ephedra industry spokesman maintains that no one has proven what caused the military deaths, and that the substance is safe if taken as directed.

Meanwhile, a leading producer of ephedra products, Twinlabs, tells CBS News that it will soon stop selling the supplements. The company calls the move "a sound business decision in the current climate," the network reports.


Sellers of New Steroids Skirt Drug Laws, Report Says

Companies selling two new types of steroids are marketing them as diet supplements and skirting laws that ban selling dangerous drugs over the counter, the Washington Post reports.

The new steroids -- known as 1-testosterone and 4-hydroxy-testosterone -- aren't detected by many existing drug-testing methods, the Post says. And sellers of the substances are bypassing a 1990 law that forbids sales of all steroids by claiming they are natural substances that increase strength and build muscle.

Studies have shown that steroids taken for their muscle-building qualities may have harmful side effects, including liver damage, aggressive behavior, hair loss, and shrinking of the testicles. Teens who take them may also suffer from stunted growth, the newspaper says.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration say they can ban such substances only after they are proven harmful. But since the latest steroids are so new, that could take months or even years, the Post says.

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