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Health Highlights: Feb. 17, 2008

U.S. Orders Largest Beef Recall in History Ocean Species' Changes Seen in Global Warming, Scientist Warns Tiny Amounts of Estrogen May be Serious Threat to Fish Population Chinese Plant That Made Suspended Blood Thinner Not Licensed for Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Meta-Study: Hispanics Have More Difficulty Controlling Glucose Levels

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

U.S. Orders Largest Beef Recall in History

In what is being billed as the largest beef recall in the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Sunday ordered the recall of 143 million pounds of frozen beef produced by a California slaughterhouse that is the subject of an animal-abuse investigation.

The recall from the Chino-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., which provided meat to school lunch programs, affects beef products dating back to Feb. 1, 2006, according to an Associated Press report. There have been no reports of illnesses linked to the recalled meat, and USDA officials termed the health threat small.

Officials estimate that about 37 million pounds of the recalled beef went to school programs, but they believe most of the meat has already been eaten, according to Dr. Dick Raymond, USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety.

Most of the beef was sent to distribution centers in bulk packages, and the USDA was planning to work with the distributors to determine how much meat remains, the AP reported.

U.S. officials recently suspended operations at Westland/Hallmark after an undercover Humane Society video showed crippled and sick animals being shoved with forklifts. Felony and misdemeanor charges were filed last week against some employees of the company, and an official investigation continues.

Federal regulations call for keeping downed cattle out of the food supply because they may pose a higher risk of contamination from E. coli, salmonella or mad cow disease.

About 150 school districts around the nation have stopped using ground beef from Hallmark Meat Packing Co., which is associated with Westland. Two fast-food chains, Jack-In-the-Box and In-N-Out, said they would not use beef from Westland/Hallmark, the AP reported. Other chains, such as McDonald's and Burger King, said they do not buy beef from Westland.

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Ocean Species' Changes Seen in Global Warming, Scientist Warns

In the last century, coal miners brought canaries with them into the mine, because the birds were sentries for any change in the air supply. If the canary keeled over, the humans knew they had to get to the surface.

The new age "canaries" are sea snails called pteropods, the food supply for a great many sea species. These small creatures are undergoing physiological changes that may spell future catastrophe, according to a molecular ecologist who gave a report over the weekend to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

Gretchen Hofmann, associate professor of biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, collected pteropods in Antarctica and noticed changes in their physical makeup. This may be caused by an increasingly acidic ocean because of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, she said in a university news release.

"They (the pteropods) are harbingers of change," she said. "It's possible by 2050 they may not be able to make a shell anymore. If we lose these organisms, the impact on the food chain will be catastrophic."

The acidity makes the animals less able to withstand warmer waters, and they are smaller now, she added. "These observations suggest that warming and acidifying seas will be a complex environment for future marine organisms," Hofmann said.

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Tiny Amounts of Estrogen May be Serious Threat to Fish Population

Some ecosystems near large population centers can be quite fragile, and a study presented over the weekend demonstrated this by using an unlikely substance -- estrogen.

Scientists from Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) found that extremely tiny amounts of synthetic estrogen -- the type found in birth control pills -- introduced from municipal wastewater plants into lakes and rivers downstream can cause a decline (and even the elimination) of entire populations of some species of fish.

According to a NSERC news release, the study was presented at a session of the Association for the Advancement of Science's annual conference in Boston Feb. 16. Researchers said they added tiny amounts per trillion to a Canadian lake region in a re-creation of what may normally be found in a municipal wastewater plant.

Results of the seven-year study were dramatic. Estrogen exposure led to the near extinction of the lake's fathead minnow population, and the population of larger fish such as pearl dace and lake trout declined.

"Generally, the smaller the fish, the more vulnerable they are to estrogen," said lead researcher Dr. Karen Kidd, a biology professor at the University of New Brunswick (Saint John). "What we demonstrated is that estrogen can wipe out entire populations of small fish, a key food source for larger fish whose survival could in turn be threatened over the longer term," she added in her statement.

The researchers recommended that estrogen be removed from municipal water supplies during the treatment process, just as other contaminants are removed.

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Chinese Plant That Made Suspended Blood Thinner Not Licensed for Pharmaceutical Manufacturing

The Chinese manufacturing plant that supplies a great amount of the active ingredient in a blood thinner associated with four deaths in the United States isn't even certified by its own government to make drugs and other pharmaceutical products, the New York Times reports.

This revelation comes only a few days after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration admitted it violated its own policy by not having inspected the plant before allowing pharmaceutical company Baxter International, which uses ingredients from the Chinese plant, to market the blood thinner heparin in the United States, the Times said.

On Feb. 11, Baxter International suspended sales multi-dose vials of heparin after disclosing that 4 deaths and 350 complications resulted from use of heparin. A spokesman for China's State Food and Drug Administration told the newspaper Friday that the plant in question was not a drug manufacturer but "a producer of chemical ingredients" and not licensed to make pharmaceutical products.

When will the FDA get around to inspecting the Chinese plant? Soon, the Times reports agency spokeswoman Karen Riley as saying. She didn't elaborate, but earlier in the week called the FDA's failure to inspect the plant a "glitch", the newspaper said.

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Meta-Study: Hispanics Have More Difficulty Controlling Glucose Levels

Confirming earlier studies, researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. have found that Hispanics have a measurably more difficult time controlling their blood sugar.

Maintaining proper amounts of blood sugar (glucose) is a key element in controlling type 2 diabetes, which is estimated to affect more than 20 million Americans.

The study, which was underwritten in part by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that Hispanic patients with diabetes have glucose levels about 0.5 percent higher than Caucasians, according to a Wake Forest news release.

The test used for the analysis was the A1C test, which measures hemoglobin linked with glucose over a two-to-three month time period. The higher the A1C values, the more difficult it is for diabetes patients to control their blood sugar, the researchers said.

The researchers began with 495 studies over a 13-year period and narrowed their focus to 11 studies that comprised results of A1C tests for Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites.

"The Hispanic population has a high prevalence of diabetes and higher A1C than non-Hispanic whites," said Julienne Kirk, associate professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest, and lead author of the study. "This further elucidates the health disparities that characterize the Hispanic population."

The results of the study are in the February issue of Diabetes Care.

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