Accessibility links

Our World — 1 September 2007

Straight ahead on "Our World": Debate over labeling food imports to the U.S.; Prospects for a hydrogen economy, and an award-winning website that could change the way you see the world:

MARSHALL BRAIN: "Just go on the site and read 100 articles and then as you walk around your environment suddenly you actually look at it in a different way and say, "Wow, I actually know what is going on here. It gives you a new appreciation."

"How Stuff That, health news and a journey to prehistoric time when mammoths roamed the earth. Hi! I'm Rosanne Skirble sitting in for Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

U.S. Consumers Want Country Origin Label on Food Imports

The recent discovery that some food imports from China were tainted with toxins has raised health concerns among American consumers, and renewed calls for stricter safeguards for the nation's food supply.

It has also sparked public debate over the government's failure to enforce a law Congress passed five years ago requiring country-of-origin labels on all meat, fish, fruit and vegetables sold in the U.S.

The issue is pitting food industry lobbyists against food safety and consumer activists.

When it comes to food, Bernie Delario is no impulse shopper. He decides what to buy based on the product label.

BERNIE DELARIO: "I'll go to the ingredients, and if I see things that don't look very natural to me, I'll tend to put it down."

But Delario says he wants to know more.

BERNIE DELARIO: "I think the origin printed on the label would be a good thing for everyone."

The 2002 Farm Bill — a complex package of food and agriculture legislation that Congress passes every five years — mandated that meat, fruit, vegetables and peanuts be labeled as to their countries of origin. But implementation has been repeatedly delayed, experts say, by the powerful influence of grocery and meat industry lobbyists.

People like Mark Dopp. He is Senior Vice President for Regulatory Affairs with the American Meat Institute, an industry trade association that has opposed the law. He says the very idea of a country-of-origin label is a multi-billion dollar nightmare.

MARK DOPP: "It is probably going to cost the meat industry somewhere between one to two billion dollars … that's billion with a 'B' … to reconfigure plants and set up the other logistical changes that have to be implemented to handle animals with various heritages or origins."

Dopp says under the labeling law, the supermarket chains, meat packers and food processors face a daunting, if not impossible regulatory challenge.

MARK DOPP: "Imagine that you are running a plant and you have some animals that are born in Mexico, raised and slaughtered in the U.S. You have other animals that spent their entire life in the United States. You've got other animals that have come directly down from Canada. You've got other animals that were born in Canada, spent some more time down here in the United States and are finished here. You have four different types of animals and I have got to keep them all separate and I've got to keep the labels on all of them separate and all of the products that are derived from them separate."

At the meat counter of a supermarket in Silver Spring, Maryland, we rendezvous with Sarah Klein. She is a staff attorney with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a national consumer advocacy group. She points out that the United States Department of Agriculture sticker on meat packages tells consumers only that the product has been U.S.D.A. inspected.

SARAH KLEIN: "What we can't tell is where the steak that produced this meat originated. Is it Argentine beef? Is this beef from Texas? Under the new country-of-origin guidelines, when they come into effect, we will have that information on the label so the consumers can make a distinction whether they want to buy a U.S. product or a product from somewhere else."

The situation with fish is different. Eighty-three percent of American seafood is imported and, since 2004, every package of fish has carried a country-of-origin label. That's because consumer groups, the Alaskan fish industry and Alaskan officials demanded compliance with the law.

SARAH KLEIN: "It's interesting to note that in this particular case, consumers can make a distinction between buying shrimp from the United States, buying shrimp from Bangladesh or choosing Chinese, that because it is in this case [the freezer case] we can assume that the USDA has taken a hard look at it and determined that it is safe. Consumers can now make their own decision about whether they are going to buy Chinese shrimp."

An August, 2007, Zogby International poll of 45-hundred Americans finds 90 percent believe knowing the country of origin of the foods they buy will allow them to make safer food choices. Klein says the action would also help public health officials react more quickly in the event of a product recall.

SARAH KLEIN: "They can say to consumers, if you have shrimp from China or beef from Canada that is what needs to be thrown out. It gives the industry a little bit of protection so that everybody does not have to suffer from the problems that have been created by one country."

Debby Rich reads labels. She makes decisions based on nutrition and the ingredients listed on the packaging. Shopping this day with her 7-year old twins, she says she favors a stronger food labeling law that includes country-of-origin.

DEBBY RICH: "I think it is important to know where food comes from. Many countries have both farming and animal practices, which I find objectionable and I would like to know where my food comes from so that as a consumer I can make an educated choice."

Sarah Klein says if Rich is lucky she will get that information when the latest version of the law included in the 2007 Farm Bill now before Congress goes into effect in 2008.

But Klein says consumer advocates will continue to push for stricter food safeguards. As things stand now with the revised law, meat, fish and produce sold in small retail stores, butcher shops and fish markets would not have to be labeled, nor would poultry or processed foods like hotdogs. Food sold in restaurants would also be exempt from country-of-origin labels.

Congressional Fuel Cell Expo Highlights Fuel Cell's Promise

Many experts predict that over the coming decades, the world's industrial economies will begin to shift away from their heavy reliance on fossil fuels to the use of non-polluting hydrogen, to run our cars, our homes, our offices and our power plants. A hydrogen economy might still be many years away, but innovative products on display recently in Washington provided a glimpse of what's to come:

Members of the U.S. Congress joined leaders in the fuel cell industry and the public on Capitol Hill for the 2007 Congressional Fuel Cell Expo. Su Carroll from Martinsburg, West Virginia, showed up to test-drive a fuel cell car.

SU CARROLL: "It is a little heavier than the cars I am used to driving, but it is something that I could get used to. It's smooth. It's quiet."

The metallic blue General Motors HydroGen3 is a prototype of things to come, says Mathew Atwell, a GM fuel cell engineer who shows Carroll what is under the hood.

MATHEW ATWELL: "First of all there is no engine, no conventional internal combustion engine whatsoever. We do use hydrogen as a fuel source, but we are not burning it."

The fuel cell operates much like a battery. The box-like component takes hydrogen stored in tanks under the rear seats and combines it with oxygen from the air. That generates electricity to drive the vehicle. The only thing that comes out of the engine's exhaust pipe is water vapor — one reason the hydrogen car scores high marks with environmental groups.

Whatever its virtues, though, the hydrogen car isn't likely to solve today's auto pollution problems. Deron Lovaas runs the Vehicles Campaign for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. He does not expect hydrogen fuel cell cars on the road any time soon.

DERON LOVAAS: "We are decades away, frankly!"

Lovaas says there are still some significant barriers to the development of hydrogen-powered automobiles:

DERON LOVAAS: "One of the first barriers is designing cars and trucks so that they have adequate on- board storage to power the fuel cells, and the cost of the fuel cells themselves."

Another obstacle is infrastructure — the network of hydrogen-fuel pumping stations on which the new cars would depend.

DERON LOVAAS: "There need to be pumps built and right now installing a hydrogen pump will run you a million dollars."

Lovaas says a better strategy for solving U.S. energy and pollution problems is to sharpen the national focus on energy conservation and to promote increased gasoline fuel economy for vehicles already on the road.

While the fuel cell car may not be in Su Carroll's future, it is the hook that gets her inside the nearby congressional office building for a closer look at a wide array of fuel-cell products with applications for aircraft, telecommunications towers, and small industrial facilities. We meet Bob Rose, executive director of the U.S. Fuel Cell Council, the trade group that organized the event.

BOB ROSE: "What we are seeing here are products, most of them reasonably new products that are finding a toehold in markets around the world."

There are companies like U-T-C Power, whose giant parent firm, United Technologies, developed fuel cells early on for the American space program. Spokeswoman Judith Bear says U-T-C Power has brought the fuel cell back to earth and deployed it worldwide.

JUDITH BEAR: "Things like a 200 kilowatt fuel cell system for stationary power plants, for schools, hospitals, military installations, for hotels and for data centers."

In addition to power plants, Bear says U-T-C is also working on fuel cell applications for cars, buses and other mass transit vehicles, the largest emitters of carbon dioxide and other climate-changing greenhouse gases.

JUDITH BEAR: "We're really excited. We have a fuel cell bus operating in our home state of Connecticut. And just Monday of this week we announced another fuel cell bus operating in Belgium."

Fuel cells could soon play a major role in consumer electronics, too. Greg Moreland with M-T-I Micro-Fuel Cells in Albany, New York says his company is designing a fuel cell, currently about the size of a paperback book, which will eventually power mobile phones.

GREG MORELAND: "What we are going to be doing is reducing the size of this to make it more and more consumer friendly, and a person who really lives off of a cell phone is going to be able to take a device like this, attach it to a cell phone and talk for hours."

Bob Rose with the U.S. Fuel Cell Council expects fuel cells to play an increasingly important role worldwide. He urges the federal government to contribute more research money, to provide tax incentives for product development and to adopt fuel cell technology in government operations.

Su Carroll, who came to the Expo to a test drive a fuel-cell car, says she hopes tomorrow's hydrogen economy will create a world where her grandchildren will be able to breath easier.

SU CARROLL: "This is something that would benefit all Americans, all people of the earth."

How Stuff Top Rate Site in 2007 Webby Awards

At the Congressional Fuel Cell Expo we saw a lot of products, but wanted to know more about how the fuel cell itself works. So, we headed to the website "How Stuff" Looking around we realized we wanted to know how lots of other stuff worked. It turns out 'How Stuff' took top honors earlier this year at the Webby Awards, an annual award given for excellence on the web. And, we're giving it another nod as our choice for Website of the Week:

Teacher and writer Marshall Brain started the website as a hobby in 1998.

MARSHALL BRAIN: "It was basically whatever I was curious about. I would do the research, investigate it and write about it."

Brain wrote short articles explaining the workings of everything from car engines to water towers and pendulum clocks. Web visitors loved them. As traffic on the site began to grow, Brain hired more writers and opened an office outside his home. Today 'How Stuff Works' gets between eight and nine million visitors a month. Brain believes the site is so popular because it gets to the essence of the world around us.

MARSHALL BRAIN: "There are so many different things you can read about and a lot of people just come in and get lost in it and really enjoy learning and satisfying that basic curiosity they have."

'How Stuff Works' is much more than the simple 'fill-in-the-blank' search engine. The site also has videos and text articles on topics in the news and on dozens of clickable categories, from autos, computers and science to food and money. All link to the site's impressive list of multi-media features.

MARSHALL BRAIN: "You can do anything: How Big Foot works, how lava lamps work or how the air conditioner in your car works. You can go anywhere you want."

… And that, Marshall Brain says, is probably why How Stuff Works-dot-com is one of the top thousand most visited websites on the Internet. Brain says that popularity has also helped turn 'How Stuff Works' from a hobby into a business. He says while advertising supports it, all on-site information is free.

MARSHALL BRAIN: "The average visitor reads about ten pages. So we are pushing upwards to 100 million-page views a month."

Brain lectures at schools and is a popular guest on network radio and TV talk shows. He says working on How Stuff Works has changed the way he sees the world.

MARSHALL BRAIN: "You can do this yourself. Just go on the site and read 100 articles and then as you walk around your environment suddenly you look at your refrigerator, your microwave oven, your toaster, your cell phone and your car. And you actually look at it in a different way. You say, 'Wow, I actually know what is going on here. And, it gives you a new appreciation. It's almost like you are holding these little pieces of art, because now you understand them."

SKIRBLE: "Let me ask you one last question. Is your real name Marshall Brain?"

BRAIN: [LAUGHS] "Yes, Actually it is. My father is David Brain and there are actually a lot of Brains up in the area of Springfield and Dayton Ohio. There is even a Brain Lumber Company."

SKIRBLE: "That's a great name for the founder of How Stuff Works!"

BRAIN: "It's even nice when it applies once in a while. Sometimes it doesn't apply at all [laughs].

SKIRBLE: "Thank you so much for your time. It has been a pleasure talking with you.

BRAIN: "Thank you and have a good day!"

You can catch Marshall Brain's daily Podcast and Brainblog on

Self-screening Shows Promise to Reduce Rates of Cervical Cancer

In health news this week: Reducing rates of cervical cancer in at-risk women.

Veronique LaCapra has the story:

The standard method to screen for cervical cancer is called a pap smear. Women go to a medical facility, and a clinician takes a sample of cells from the cervix. The cells are then examined under a microscope for signs of cancer. But epidemiologist and physician Gina Ogilvie, of the Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver, says not all women get pap smears when they should:

GINA OGILVIE: "Even in a country like Canada which has universal health care, we found that certain groups of women, particularly lower socio-economic status women, often are less likely to have had pap smears ever, and also are less likely to have had them within the time frame that we recommend."

Cervical cancer starts when a woman contracts the sexually-transmitted human papilloma virus, or HPV. Only about ten percent of women with HPV will develop cancer. But for women who are less likely to get routine pap smears, Ogilvie says testing for HPV can help identify those who may be at risk for cancer. And they can collect the test samples themselves.

GINA OGILVIE: "One of the opportunities that exists with testing for HPV is that […] you don't necessarily have to […] get the specimen from this one part of the cervix. You can actually obtain a specimen from within the vagina."

By following a simple diagram with instructions, women can collect the specimen themselves for analysis, without having to go to a clinic.

To determine how readily this method would be accepted, Ogilvie sent trained outreach nurses to women's centers and homeless shelters in a low-income neighborhood of Vancouver. Out of the 300 women that the nurses approached, 152 agreed to participate. Forty-three of their test samples came back positive for HPV. The nurses were able to re-contact thirty-five of the women for follow-up screenings.

Ogilvie says that it was the nurses themselves who were critical to the study's success.

GINA OGILVIE: "This wasn't a group of nurses who'd never been in this community. We used an […] established team who had trust and respect in the community. And they know the community as well, so they know these women. […] So one of the keys if other folks are interested in using this in a similar population, is you cannot just throw community workers in who don't know the community."

Ogilvie stresses that all women should get regular pap smears, because they are a more accurate predictor of cervical cancer than tests for HPV. But, she adds, for women who are not getting tested, self-collection can provide a way to increase access to this life-saving screening. Her research is published in the August 28th, issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Volunteers Join Scientists to Discover Why Mammoths Died Out

You won't find mammoths wandering on the earth anymore. They've been gone for millennia. Experts offer various theories: Contact with human predators, disease or climate change. Scientists are testing these ideas at Mammoth Site, an active paleontological dig, located in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

As Jim Kent reports, visitors are invited to take park in the on-going scientific research.

Take a drive through South Dakota's Black Hills and you're likely to see antelope, deer, the occasional coyote and, of course, American bison. But if you could step back in time — say, 26,000 years or so — you'd see other wildlife roaming the area: giant short-faced bear, camels, and mammoths - an ancient relative of today's elephants. Apparently, Hot Springs was a favorite spot for mammoths, which came to a local water hole for refreshment. Unfortunately, the spring-fed pond they drank from was also a sinkhole. Once in the water, the massive creatures were unable to get back out and died there.

When their remains were first discovered in 1974 during a construction project, the location quickly became a significant spot for paleontological research. Over the past 30 years, says principal investigator Dr. Larry Agenbroad, the Mammoth Site has developed into the world's largest mammoth research facility.

LARRY AGENBROAD: "We have other sites where we might have accumulation of mammoth bones, but usually they're in a meander [eds: bend] in a river, that's been accumulating bones like driftwood logs for maybe even centuries. This is a walk-in trap. They had to come in here intentionally. And found out they couldn't get out. We've got the highest concentration of Columbian mammoths anywhere, and I think this is absolutely unique worldwide."

DIG VOLUNTEER: "Here, this is a very hard layer… this is very soft, so you can basically brush it away…

That uniqueness draws volunteers here each summer as part of the Earthwatch Institute's cooperation with scientific sites around the world. Earthwatch representative Yoka Heijstek says the project gives the average person a chance to be a part of science.

YOKA HEIJSTEK: "The good thing is that everyone can sign up for this project. You don't need to be an archeologist to work here, for instance, at the Mammoth Site. You're just not a visitor or you watch certain things, but you're a part of it. And you really can make a difference by helping scientists collect data they use for their research."

One of those people who really made a difference was Pennsylvania resident Ruth Clemmer. She struck pay dirt on her first day.

RUTH CLEMMER: "I actually found a fragment there that no one had anticipated, because they haven't found any in that area at all. And I was the first one to find one there, on the first day… when we were practicing. So that was pretty exciting."

Not bad for a retiree on her first visit to the bone bed. Another first-time volunteer to the dig site is Julie Patullock from Australia. Last year she visited an archeological site on Easter Island, but she says looking for 26,000 year-old mammoth bones is different.

JULIE PATULLOCK: "I found the first week I did have to be really patient because I wasn't finding a lot where I was digging. But all good things come to those who wait, and I finally found my first bone this morning. So, I'm just uncovering that one now, so that's exciting."

Kent: "Congratulations."

Julie: "Thank you."

Kent: "I'm sorry we took you away from that."

Julie: (laughs) "I'll get back to it."

VITRIS LAMB: "We're looking at this right-hand side of the part that's showing…"

Vetris Lamb first volunteered at the Mammoth Site in 1989 and has come back every summer since.

LAMB: "I've been very lucky in finding important bones. The tusk is my… favorite thrill. It's a special thrill. I've found… two tusks."

KENT: "Two tusks?"

LAMB: "Yeah."

But whether they find a tusk, a small bone, or just help remove 26,000 years of dirt, Dr. Agenbroad says every volunteer's efforts are important.

LARRY AGENBROAD: "It also has side benefits for the people who come. Some of them have actually changed their life progression. I had one woman that was a dental technician. She liked it so much she went back to school and became a scientist in archeology and was very sad when a major institution hired her away from here and she couldn't come back anymore."

Larry Agenbroad sees that process as part of what he calls the pass-it-on club. Just as The Mammoth Site has passed on his interest in science to others, Dr. Agenbroad hopes that volunteers at the dig will, in turn, pass on their interest to the world.

Jim Kent, at the Mammoth Site, in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

And, that's our program for this week. Rob Sivak is our editor. Our technical director is Eva Nenicka. I'm Rosanne Skirble. Join us online at or on your radio next week with Art Chimes at this same time as we explore the latest in science and technology on "Our World."