The new FDA Commissioner has a full plate; here are three steps he can take to keep focused on food safety too

Tom Neltner, Senior Director, Safer Chemicals.

The U.S. Senate today voted to return Robert Califf to the role of FDA Commissioner, bringing needed leadership to an agency that plays a vital role in protecting public health. 

While Dr. Califf faces historic challenges in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid epidemic, he also has a tremendous opportunity to elevate the agency’s important role in protecting the public from unsafe chemicals in food. 

We put together a list of three things Dr. Califf and the FDA have the authority to do right now to keep problematic chemicals out of our food: 

  1. Act on petitions to restrict harmful chemicals in food. FDA faces a number of petitions from EDF and other groups calling on the agency to ban perchlorate, phthalates, and most PFAS; and restrict the use of BPA and lead in packaging and processing equipment that contact food. FDA should move quickly to resolve these petitions, some of which have been before the agency for years:
    • Perchlorate. What is good for rocket fuel may not be good for food packaging/equipment, but perchlorate is used in both. Perchlorate exposure disrupts the functioning of the thyroid gland and has been linked to developmental delays and impaired learning abilities, and it is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, infants, and young children. We sued the FDA to get this chemical out of food, and the case is pending.
    • Phthalates. This class of chemicals is known to disrupt hormones and impair brain development. EDF and nine other groups petitioned FDA in 2016 to ban the use of phthalates in food packaging and processing equipment. FDA has indicated it will make a decision this May.
    • PFAS. Growing evidence links per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) to a wide range of serious health effects – from developmental problems to cancer. States from Washington to Maine  have taken steps to restrict PFAS from food contact materials. FDA should act on a June 2021 petition to ban those that bioaccumulate in humans.
    • BPA. Bisphenol A (BPA) can lead to immunotoxicity at extremely low levels and disrupt the endocrine system. By FDA’s own estimate, Americans are exposed to 5,000 times more BPA than an expert panel for the European Food Safety Authority recently said is safe. FDA should act on a January 2022 petition to limit BPA in plastic food packaging/equipment to protect our immune systems from harm.
    • Lead. This heavy metal can harm childrens’ brain development and cause heart disease in adults. We joined a December 2020 petition calling on the FDA to prohibit lead from being added to materials that contact food and adopt limits for bottled water consistent with recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
  2. Modernize its science and decision-making. Consumers continue to be concerned about chemicals in their food. They deserve an FDA that is actively reviewing whether chemical ingredients are safe and is transparent in its decisions. This requires the agency to:
    • Close the “Generally Recognized as Safe” loophole that allows companies to self-certify that chemicals are safe for food, without notifying the FDA. 
    • Reassess previously approved chemicals when new evidence indicates they are unsafe. Chemicals approved decades ago should be reevaluated in light of new scientific principles. 
    • Consider cumulative effects of multiple related substances in the diet. No one is exposed to just one chemical in their food. The agency needs to act on our September 2020 petition, stop analyzing chemicals’ safety in isolation, and follow the law.
  3. Closer to Zero heavy metals in children’s food. FDA has taken a significant step forward with its Closer to Zero Action Plan that commits the agency to specific actions and deadlines to reduce neurotoxic metals in children’s food. We applaud this effort and have recommended additional steps the agency can take to strengthen the Closer to Zero plan. 
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