EDF Health

FDA finds surprisingly high levels of PFAS in certain foods – including chocolate cake

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

As reported by the Associated Press today, at a conference last week in Helsinki, Finland, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) presented the results of three studies it conducted of 16 per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in various foods. A friend who attended the conference sent us photos of the poster. The results for samples of meat and chocolate cake purchased by the agency in October 2017 as part of its ongoing Total Diet Study (TDS) jumped out at us as surprisingly high and worth further investigation:

  • 17,640 parts per trillion (ppt) of perfluoro-n-pentanoic acid (PFPeA) in chocolate cake with icing. These levels suggest that the cake was contaminated from the intentional use of the chemical to greaseproof paper that contacted the cake rather than from an environmental source. We cannot find any evidence that FDA ever reviewed the safety of PFPeA as a food contact substance – meaning the manufacturer may have secretly designated it as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). We also found little evidence – good or bad – of the health risks posed by this PFAS. We have reached out to FDA to learn more, but as of this blog posting the agency has not yet responded. This chemical was also found in chocolate milk at 154 ppt.
  • Nearly half (10 of 21) meat samples had quantifiable levels of perfluoroctanesulfonate (PFOS) with concentrations ranging from 134 ppt in a frankfurter to 865 ppt in tilapia. Unlike the chemical in chocolate cake, PFOS has been extensively studied because of widespread environmental contamination, especially around the facilities in Alabama and Minnesota where it was previously produced. It is associated with increased cholesterol, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, and decreased birth weight. While comparisons are complicated, the PFOS levels found in some of these meats were far greater than the 70 ppt health advisory set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for drinking water in May 2016. Two years later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) proposed limits that are almost 7 times more protective than EPA’s, partly because more recent studies indicate the chemical may undermine the effectiveness of vaccines. Production of PFOS in the United States reportedly ended in 2002, though it is still made overseas and may have been imported paper. In 2016, FDA removed its approval to greaseproof paper with PFOS.

FDA’s poster also showed testing results from food produced around two PFAS contaminated areas. FDA found most of the 16 PFAS at varying levels measured in produce sold in farmer’s markets downstream of a PFAS production facility in the Eastern U.S. – presumably Chemours’ plant in North Carolina. The highest produce sample had 1,200 ppt and was purchased within 10 miles downstream of the production plant and short-chain PFAS were prevalent.

The other contaminated area was a dairy farm near an air force base in New Mexico. FDA found many of the 16 PFAS in the water and silage used to feed the cows but PFOS was the most prevalent among a few PFAS measured in the milk with levels higher than 5000 ppt. The agency also detected several PFAS in cheese produced by the farm in lower amounts than the milk. Many of the PFAS are likely from aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) used to fight fire and conduct firefighting training at the Air Force base.

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EDF asks judge to rule on legality of FDA rule allowing companies to secretly decide on chemicals in our food

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

At the end of March, EDF, represented jointly by counsel from Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety (CFS), asked a federal district court judge to decide as a matter of law that the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) regulation is unlawful. The GRAS Rule allows food manufacturers to make secret safety determinations for chemicals added to food without notifying FDA or the public and to use such chemicals. If the judge agrees to our request, this would vacate the rule. Two years ago, EDF and others challenged the legality of the GRAS Rule in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. Last September, the court ruled that plaintiffs EDF and the CFS have standing, setting the stage for a decision on the merits of the case.

In the Motion for Summary Judgment, we identify the following four ways in which FDA violated the law in the GRAS Rule. FDA has until May 28 to respond to our motion.

  1. FDA unlawfully delegated to food manufacturers its authority to determine the safety of chemicals added to our food.

When Congress enacted the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) of 1938, it gave FDA the responsibility to ensure the nation’s food is safe and free from harmful substances. To implement this responsibility, it provided the agency broad authority to adopt necessary regulations.

Unfortunately, in the GRAS Rule, instead of fulfilling its responsibility to keep food safe, FDA formally and unlawfully outsourced its responsibility to the regulated entities themselves – namely, for-profit additive manufacturers – allowing them to decide for themselves, in secret, whether the chemical substances they have manufactured can be added to food. This unlawful delegation – made without express statutory authorization – makes it all but impossible for FDA to fulfill its obligations under the FFDCA.

As a result, the GRAS Rule impermissibly allows regulated, private companies with obvious conflicts of interest to self-certify the use of their chemical additives as GRAS without notifying FDA. This is not a case where FDA is seeking legitimate outside input to gather factual information or advice and make policy recommendations. Here, FDA retains no oversight over these secret GRAS determinations that directly affect the safety of our food and thus render it impossible for the agency to fulfill its statutory mandate to keep our food safe.

By delegating its authority in the GRAS Rule, the agency violated Constitutional principles, the FFDCA, and the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). The rule effectively insulates the agency from democratic accountability for food safety decisions and denies citizens their right to seek judicial review of decisions about the safety of substances that may be added to food.

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Important insight from the organic certification approach to chemical additives in food

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

Since 2014, chemicals in food[1] have been consumers’ most important food safety issue, reaching a high of 35% in 2018, according to annual industry surveys by the International Food Information Council. For comparison, “foodborne illness from bacteria” was half that percent.

Food companies have responded to this growing consumer alarm by adopting policies banning artificial flavors, colors and other ingredients that sound like chemicals. This approach is unlikely to do more than serve as window dressing for the underlying problems since it’s not science-based – many of these additives may be safe. The Center for Science in the Public Interest called out this practice in its 2017 “Clean Label: Public Relations or Public Health?” report and pointed readers to its Chemical Cuisine system that rates common additives for health and safety.

There are some companies, like Panera Bread, that are taking a more systematic approach to the ingredients used in the food they sell, starting with the question of whether the additives used are essential and whether the ingredients pose health or safety concerns. As a result, the company worked closely with their suppliers and reformulated many of their products.

And now, thanks to a fascinating new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), we are learning about another structured approach that addresses health concerns with chemical additives – the Federal organic certification program for processed foods. To be honest, before reading the report, I viewed the organic program as narrowly focused on pesticides and was only vaguely aware of how it dealt with chemical additives. I was missing the bigger picture.

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Challenge to FDA’s GRAS rule moves forward after court rejects request for dismissal

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

In a critical ruling for food additive safety, a federal district court ruled on Wednesday that EDF, represented by Earthjustice, has standing in its legal challenge to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) rule. This 2016 final rule allows food manufacturers to make secret GRAS safety determinations for chemicals added to food, without notifying FDA or the public, and to use the chemical in food without anyone else’s knowledge. The court was considering a motion to dismiss from FDA arguing that plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the case. The judge found EDF and the Center for Food Safety (CFS) “plausibly allege harm to their members” and therefore “satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement for standing.” Our legal challenge now moves to the substance of our concerns with the flaws in the agency’s GRAS Rule.

The court found that members of EDF and CFS showed a risk of harm consistent with the requirements of the law in alleging that FDA’s “GRAS Rule poses a credible threat to their members.” Specifically the court stated that:

  • Their members “have been and will be exposed to potentially dangerous substances that were introduced into the food supply without FDA oversight, public participation, or the opportunity for judicial review.”
  • They “explicitly identify multiple substances that manufacturers determined to be GRAS and used in food despite concerns raised by FDA about their safety, as well as additional undisputedly dangerous substances that Plaintiffs reasonably anticipate will be introduced into the food supply under the GRAS Rule.”
  • “[T]hese injuries are ongoing and imminent.

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American Academy of Pediatrics calls for “urgently needed reforms” to fix broken food additive regulatory system

Tom Neltner, J.D. is Chemicals Policy Director

Today, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a “Food Additives and Child Health” policy statement calling for “urgently needed reforms to the current regulatory process at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for food additives.” The policy applies to chemicals deliberately added to food or to food packaging or food processing equipment that get into food. These substances are used to flavor, color, preserve, package, process and store our food, but many never appear among the list of ingredients. AAP’s statement calls specifically for the following:

  • “Greatly strengthening or replacing the GRAS [Generally Recognized as Safe] determination process;
  • Updating the scientific foundation of the FDA’s safety assessment program;
  • Retesting all previously approved chemicals; and
  • Labeling direct additives with limited or no toxicity data.”

EDF applauds AAP’s policy statement and its decision to add its influential voice to the rising call for reform of the process by which FDA and food manufacturers decide additives are safe. AAP, a professional society representing 67,000 pediatricians, develops policy statements regarding federal, state, and community policies that affect children through an extensive, deliberative process that draws on tremendous scientific expertise. As with past policies, such as those concerning lead toxicity and fruit juice consumption, this statement on chemicals in food presents a well-reasoned assessment of the problem and clear recommendations for reform.

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We are what we eat: New paper outlines how the regulatory gaps in the US threaten our health

Sarah Vogel, Ph.D.is Vice-President for Health.

In a new paper published in PLoS Biology today, Maricel Maffini, Tom Neltner and I detail the regulatory gaps in how the US manages chemicals in food. We explore how failures in our current regulatory system put the public’s health at risk as exemplified in the case of perchlorate, a chemical allowed in food and a well-known endocrine disrupting compound. Perchlorate’s ability to disrupt normal functioning of the thyroid means that even low levels of exposure, especially in those with inadequate iodine intake, can adversely impact the developing brains of infants and children. It is not a chemical that should be in the food of pregnant women, infants and children. And yet it is, and the levels children consume have increased in recent years.

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