EDF Health

Toxic secrets in our food? EDF joins in lawsuit aimed at protecting food safety

Today, Environmental Defense Fund joined other groups in challenging a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rule that allows chemical and food manufacturers to decide for themselves – in secret – what chemicals and food additives can be added to foods. The practice puts our health at risk and does not fulfill Congress’ requirement that FDA determine that chemical additives are safe before they can be used in food.

Americans would be shocked to learn that food companies routinely add novel chemicals to our food without first getting FDA approval. In doing so, the companies are exploiting a loophole exempting ingredients “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) from formal FDA review and approval.

Originally intended for ingredients like vinegar and olive oil, industry now abuses the GRAS loophole by bypassing FDA review and making safety determinations in secret. The alarming result: even FDA does not know what is in our food. In fact, FDA has no way to know what chemicals are actually being used in which food or in what quantities—even in baby food.

Last year, the FDA issued a final rule formalizing this outrageous practice. We described this decision as a lost opportunity for safer food additives when the decision was made. Today, EDF and our colleagues at the Center for Food Safety (CFS), Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Environmental Working Group, represented by CFS and the environmental law firm Earthjustice, joined in filing suit against the FDA for unconstitutionally and illegally delegating that authority to self-interested food and chemical manufacturers.

It is disappointing that the groups were forced to take legal action. In addition to being a bad policy that doesn’t comply with law, or protect public health, the FDA is oddly out of touch with public sentiment. Just last week an industry funded survey showed overwhelming consumer concern about chemicals in food, including cancer causing chemicals, while showing diminished confidence in the food supply. This continues a trend that has been building for years. Food companies would be wise to take notice: adding secret chemicals without FDA scientific review to our food is no way to improve confidence in their products.

But with thousands of secret chemicals in our food, we can’t wait for industry or FDA to wise up. Today’s lawsuit seeks to force FDA to do what should be common sense—determine that food additives are safe before they can be added to our food.

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The hidden – and potentially dangerous – chemicals in your diet

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

While picking up groceries for the week, a shopper may compare brands, prices, and nutritional information to ensure they make economical and healthy choices for their family. Unfortunately, there’s much more to our food than meets the eye – or makes the label.

Approximately 10,000 food additives are allowed in our food. Food additives are substances used to flavor, color, preserve, package, process, and store our food. While some of the chemicals added to food or used in packaging are harmless, others are downright dangerous and linked to health concerns. Certain additives are linked to reproductive problems, developmental issues, and even cancer.

Perchlorate was approved in 2005 as a component of plastic packaging for dry food despite the fact that it is a known endocrine disruptor that impairs infant brain development. Benzophenone – an artificial flavor added to baked goods, dessert, beverages, and candy – is classified as a possible human carcinogen. The list goes on. No matter where you shop, your family’s health may be at risk.

Check out the cupboard below to see what else could be lurking in your food.

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EPA to consider perchlorate risks from degradation of hypochlorite bleach

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

Virtually all types of food contain measurable amounts of perchlorate. Young children are the most highly exposed, and they consume levels that may be unsafe. Reducing exposure to perchlorate is of public health importance because it presents a risk to children’s brain development

One potentially significant source of the toxic chemical in food is hypochlorite bleach that, when not well managed, degrades to perchlorate. Bleach is used to sanitize food manufacturing equipment or to wash or peel fruits and vegetables. Thanks to a recent decision by Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Pesticide Programs, we will better understand the risk posed by perchlorate-contaminated bleach and whether standards are needed to improve the management of bleach.

Reduce perchlorate exposure by improving bleach management

In 2011, an excellent report by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and the Water Research Foundation documented that hypochlorite bleach degrades into perchlorate. The report also included guidelines on better management of hypochlorite to preserve its effectiveness for drinking water utilities using it to disinfect water.

Most of AWWA’s recommendations are equally relevant to food manufacturers and anyone using bleach to disinfect food contact surfaces. The key recommendations are:

  • Dilute hypochlorite solutions on delivery. Cutting the concentration in half decreases the degradation rate by a factor of 7.
  • Store hypochlorite solutions at lower temperatures. Reducing temperature by 5oC decreases degradation rate by a factor of 2.
  • Keep pH between 11 and 13 even after dilution.
  • Avoid extended storage times, and use fresh hypochlorite solutions when possible.

The objective is not to reduce the use of bleach. Rather it is to preserve its effectiveness by preventing degradation to perchlorate through careful management.

Bleach: a food additive and a pesticide

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When it comes to lead, formula-fed infants get most from water and toddlers from food, but for highest exposed children the main source of lead is soil and dust

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

On January 19, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a major new draft report proposing three different approaches to setting health-based benchmarks for lead in drinking water. We applauded EPA’s action and explored the implications for drinking water in a previous blog. One of the agency’s approaches provides useful, and surprising, insights into where the lead that undermines the health of our children comes from. Knowing the sources enables regulators and stakeholders to set science-based priorities to reduce exposures and the estimated $50 billion that lead costs society each year.

The EPA draft report is available for public comments until March 6, 2017, and it is undergoing external peer-review by experts in the field in support of the agency’s planned revisions to its Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) for drinking water. Following this public peer-review process, EPA expects to evaluate and determine what specific role or roles a health-based value may play in the revised LCR. With the understanding that some of the content may change, here are my takeaways from the draft:

  • For the 20% of most exposed infants and toddlers, dust/soil is the largest source of lead. Since we know that 21% of U.S. homes (24 out of 114 million) have lead-based paint hazards, this should not be surprising.
  • For most infants, lead in water and soil/dust have similar contributions to blood lead levels, with food as a smaller source. If the infant is formula-fed, water dominates.
  • For 2/3 of toddlers, food appears to provide the majority of their exposure to lead. This result was a surprise for me. EPA used data from the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Total Diet Study collected from 2007 to 2013 coupled with food consumption data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey collected from 2005 to 2011. In August 2016, FDA reported on levels of lead (and cadmium in food) commonly eaten by infants and toddlers based on a data set that is different from its Total Diet Study. FDA concluded that these levels, “on average, are relatively low and are not likely to cause a human health concern.”
  • For all children, air pollution appears to be a minor source of lead exposure. We think it is most likely because exposure is localized around small airports and industrial sources.

For a visual look at the data, we extracted two charts from the draft EPA report (page 81) that show the relative contribution of the four sources of lead for infants (0-6 month-olds) and toddlers (1 to <2 year-olds) considered by the agency. The charts represent national exposure distributions and not specific geographical areas or age of housing.

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Too many young children get too much perchlorate from food

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

On January 9, we described a new Food and Drug Administration (FDA) report showing that perchlorate exposure to infants and toddlers increased 34% and 23% respectively between the years around 2005 and 2010. Young children were the most exposed age groups. FDA compared the exposure to a “safe dose” established in 2005 and saw no cause for concern. We respectfully disagree and find the levels alarming. First, we now know that the 2005 “safe dose” is no longer sufficient to protect children’s brains from the irreversible harm that can result from even transient exposures to perchlorate. Second, many young children may be over the “safe dose.” Read More »

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FDA finds more perchlorate in more food, especially bologna, salami and rice cereal

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) scientists published a study showing significant increases in perchlorate contamination in food sampled from 2008 and 2012 compared to levels sampled from 2003 to 2006. The amount of perchlorate infants and toddlers eat went up 34% and 23% respectively. Virtually all types of food had measurable levels of perchlorate, up from 74%. These increases are important because perchlorate threatens fetal and child brain development. As we noted last month, one in five pregnant women are already at great risk from any perchlorate exposure. The FDA study doesn’t explain the increase in perchlorate contamination. Yet, it’s important to note that there is one known factor that did change in this time period: FDA allowed perchlorate to be added to plastic packaging.

Reported perchlorate levels in food varied widely, suggesting that how the food was processed may have made a significant difference. The increase in three foods jumped out to me:

  • Bologna: At a shocking 1,557 micrograms of perchlorate per kilogram (µg/kg), this lunchmeat had by far the highest levels. Another sample had the fifth highest levels at 395 µg/kg. Yet a quarter of the other bologna samples had no measurable perchlorate. Previously, FDA reported levels below 10 µg/kg.
  • Salami: One sample had 686 µg/kg giving it a third ranking. Other samples showed much lower levels and six of the 20 had no detectable levels of perchlorate. Previously, FDA reported levels below 7 µg/kg.
  • Rice Cereal for Babies: Among baby foods, prepared dry rice cereal had the two highest levels with 173 and 98 µg/kg. Yet, 15 of the 20 samples had non-detectable levels of perchlorate. Previously, FDA reported levels less than 1 µg/kg.

The increases are disturbing in light of the threat posed by perchlorate to children’s brain development and the emerging science showing the risk at lower levels is greater than thought a decade ago. The risk is particularly significant for children in those families loyal to those brands with high levels. Unfortunately, FDA’s study does not identify the brand of food tested. Read More »

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