Rx for readers: You are what you eat?

Many people feel that animal testing has pointed to possible long-term negative effects of genetically modified foods.

PROTESTERS WITH the Organic Consumers Association_521 (photo credit: MCT)
PROTESTERS WITH the Organic Consumers Association_521
(photo credit: MCT)
What is the Health Ministry’s position on genetically modified foods and the availability and “identifiability” of such foods in Israel? In the US, I know that these seven foods are often genetically modified: canola (as in canola or rapeseed oil); corn; cottonseed (as in cottonseed oil); some varieties of papaya; sugar from sugar beets; some varieties of zucchini and squash; soy (and all soy byproducts).

Although the official US government position is that there is no difference between genetically modified and non-genetically modified foods, many people feel that animal testing has pointed to possible long-term negative effects of modified foods. Are these or other foods on the Israeli market genetically modified? Are genetically modified foods grown in Israel? How can a consumer know if a food is or is not genetically modified?

C.B., Adam
The Health Ministry’s spokeswoman replies:
Food imported to Israel may include components of genetically engineered foods. All soy products marketed in Israel, for example, are genetically modified. There is no Israeli approval for commercial farming of genetically modified food. At present, there is no demand to mark ingredients in food products as being genetically engineered. The ministry is working on a regulation in this matter that will, among other things, ensure the safety of food consumption and marking of such products.
Despite the lack of labeling requirements in the US of genetically engineered food products, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is very careful to conduct risk-assessment of food products. The Health Ministry usually, but not always, follows the precedents and decisions of the FDA and European authorities.
I am taking six different pills a day (some twice daily) as prescribed by my doctor and I keep them in a seven-day dispenser. Four of them are white and almost identical in size and shape. Sometimes I find it difficult to differentiate between them and have occasionally made mistakes. Why can’t the Health Ministry make sure that pharmaceutical companies use more colors and/or shapes and make it easier to avoid errors?

R.P., Haifa
The Health Ministry’s pharmaceutical branch replies:
The number of possible colors for pills is limited as compared to the number of medications there are and the doses available for each kind of pill. There is also a limit to the shapes that pills can be pressed into. In addition, medications are produced not only in Israel but all over the world, and the ministry cannot require foreign companies to change the colors and shapes of the pills they produce; nor can it coordinate among all the companies. It is impossible to ensure that every patient has medications in different colors and shapes.
There are on the market a number of containers to store pills for daily or weekly use. One or a combination of these devices can be used to prevent confusion when taking pills.
Judy Siegel-Itzkovich adds:
As R.P. already uses a seven-day pill container for his medications but still gets confused sometimes, the Health Ministry’s response is not really helpful except to say that nothing can be done for him. I suggest to the ministry that it require at least those pills and capsules made in Israel or labeled here to print on them a unique stamp, symbol or bar code that will be recognizable to consumers. This would not only reduce confusion by patients who use them but also reduce errors in distribution of medications in hospitals that can cause harm or even death. Supermarkets sell thousands of products of different sizes and nevertheless manage to have a unique bar code for each. The ministry should be able to devise such a system for pills and capsules to prevent errors. People who take many different kinds of pills might be helped to recognize them by photographing them in a line with their names and doses printed alongside and using the photo as a guide.
The Health Ministry’s pharmaceutical branch responds:
The idea for a mark or barcode is a good idea in principle, but practically it is very complicated and so far no European country has required such marking of pills. We cannot force foreign pharmaceutical companies to use any code. As for those drugs made in Israel, we will consider whether some marking can be made that will help identify the pills.
Prof. Yoel Donchin, director of the Patient Safety Unit at Hadassah University Medical School in Jerusalem, comments:
R.P. is doing something improper which is largely responsible for the problem. He removes his pills from the blister packet of plastic and aluminum foil before putting then in the seven-day dispenser. He should cut the blister packets into sections with a pill in each and put them, still wrapped, in the dispenser.
Only right before taking them should he remove the pill. It is true that vitamins and food supplements that many people take usually come in one bottle and not in separate blister packets, so this could present a problem.
Printing or etching a code on the pill or capsule would not help those people who have difficulty reading. The importance of not removing the pill from the covering in advance should be emphasized regularly to patients.
Rx for Readers welcomes queries from readers about medical problems. Experts will answer those we find most interesting. Write Rx for Readers, The Jerusalem Post, POB 81, Jerusalem 91000, fax your question to Judy Siegel-Itzkovich at (02) 538- 9527, or e-mail it to jsiegel@jpost.com, giving your initials, age and place of residence.