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Chemicals in food continue to be a top food safety concern among consumers

Chemicals in food continue to be a top food safety concern among consumers

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, consultant

The latest annual food industry survey demonstrates that U.S. consumers continue to have significant concerns about chemicals in food. Specifically, the survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) found:

  • 29% of consumers rated chemicals in food as their top food safety concern, more than any other issue, including foodborne illness from bacteria. Everyone rated chemicals in food among the top three concerns. Chemicals in food has been the top concern every year since 2017, tying risk from COVID-19 from food last year. It has been a significant concern back to the first IFIC Food and Health Survey in 2009.
  • 69% of consumers did not realize that the U.S. government is responsible for reviewing the safety of low-calorie sweeteners, which are among the most well-known food additives.
  • 54% of consumers reported it is important that ingredients do not have “chemical-sounding names” including 26% that rate it “very important.” Their opinion is primarily based on food safety and healthfulness concerns.

Our takeaway is that consumers continue to be concerned about chemicals in food, partly because they are not confident that the federal government is actually ensuring additives are safe. Therefore, they do their best to try and protect their health and safety by avoiding ingredients that sound like chemicals – the only way they see to control the perceived risk. In reaction to consumer concerns, food companies have undertaken “clean label” programs that either remove these ingredients (which can be helpful) or use names that do not sound like chemicals (which obscure the fact and can be misleading).

A better approach is to actually ensure the chemicals in food are safe and healthy rather than leaving consumers to judge products based on the sound of the ingredient names. Actual safety is the outcome that Congress intended when it adopted the Food Additives Amendment of 1958. Instead, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency with both the responsibility and the authority for food safety, allows companies to decide in secret that additives are safe, fails to consider the cumulative health effect of chemicals in the diet, and lacks any systematic reassessment of past decisions even when new evidence shows potential harm.

FDA needs to step up and address these shortcomings to make our food safe and restore consumer confidence. This involves not only improving its approach to addressing ingredient safety but also their approach towards contaminants that enter our food from the environment, from the packaging, or from food processing.

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Beyond paper, part 2: PFAS intentionally used to make plastic food packaging

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director; Maricel Maffini, consultant; and Tom Bruton with Green Science Policy Institute

Since 2002, FDA has authorized the use of four types of per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) to make plastic food packaging, one as recently as 2016. The PFAS are allowed in plastic at levels up to 2000 parts per million (ppm); although lower than those used to greaseproof paper, these levels still contaminate food. The PFAS are added to facilitate the production of articles such as bottles and wraps. They reportedly improve polymer extrusion, reduce build-up on the injection mold, and improve surface roughness among other technical effects.

EDF submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for seven food contact substance notices (FCNs) that FDA has authorized. From FDA’s response[1], we learned that these PFAS can contaminate food in contact with the packaging. In one case the overall amount of the PFAS in the diet would be as high as 41 ppb (see pages 31-32 of FOIA response) – much more than is tolerated for some PFAS in drinking water.

These plastic processing aids, along with fluorinated polyethylene, are the latest additions to a growing list of sources of ‘forever chemicals’ in the diet. They join environmental contamination and greaseproofed paper and cardboard as sources that food companies must consider in order to keep PFAS out of their products and respond to consumer demand for safer food. Given the evidence, FDA needs to move forward pursuant to our June 2021 citizens petition to evaluate the safety of PFAS taking into account the cumulative effect of these chemicals in the diet from many sources.

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FDA acts on fluorinated plastic packaging. What are next steps?

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, consultant

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took an important step last week to protect food from PFAS contamination from plastic packaging. On August 5, the agency sent a letter to manufacturers, distributors, and users of fluorinated polyethylene food contact articles reminding them that these articles must be made under specific conditions to comply with existing regulation or otherwise the food contact articles “are not lawful.” Therefore, the food that contacted them should not be permitted for sale. The agency gave three examples of manufacturing processes that do not comply with the regulation. We flagged concerns with fluorinated plastic packaging in a July blog and applaud the agency for this action.

This significant first step needs to be followed:

  1. Investigate the companies that provided fluorinated plastic packaging for food and cosmetic uses to determine whether their products complied with the law. If not, then alert food manufacturers and retailers so they can recall the adulterated food and cosmetics.
  2. Reassess whether the process FDA approved in 1983 for fluorinating polyethylene generates PFAS and whether it should still be considered safe.

Investigate companies that provided fluorinated plastic packaging

In the letter, FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety (OFAS) states that “available information indicates that some manufacturers of fluorinated polyethylene produce articles via alternative manufacturing methods from that stipulated in FDA’s regulation.” It identified three specific examples and says that “these alternative processes for fluorination of polyethylene are not compliant with 21 CFR § 177.1615, and are not lawful for use in food contact articles.” The three examples of unlawful manufacturing processes are:

  1. “Fluorination of polyethylene for non-food uses may occur during the fabrication or molding of the container.”
  2. “Use of fluorine gas in combination with other inert diluents such as carbon dioxide, helium, or argon.”
  3. Incorporation of oxygen into the fluorinating mixture to modify the properties of the final container.

A market search shows several brands that have in-mold fluorination of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), (here and here) and another that may use oxygen or other gases in combination with fluorine.

With the letter public, FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA), which handles field inspections and sampling for the agency, should ensure compliance by food manufacturers all along the supply chain. Where it finds a violation, it would manage the recall of the adulterated food.

Reassess whether the allowed use generates PFAS and should still be considered safe

About a week before FDA sent out the letter, the agency responded to our May 2021 FOIA request for the documentation that resulted in its 1983 approval of fluorinated polyethylene packaging at 21 CFR § 177.1615. The approval came in response to a 1979 food additive petition by Union Carbide.

As with most of FDA’s FOIA responses, the 233-page document has extensive redactions of health and safety information. However, two things come through clearly:

  1. Nitrogen and fluorine only: In its petition and communications with FDA, Union Carbide was inconsistent when it explained whether nitrogen was only an example of an acceptable inert gas. FDA scientists demanded clarity and the company agreed that only nitrogen would be allowed. In its recent letter, FDA reminds companies that only this condition is approved.
  2. Fluorinated organics: The petition included studies of the chemicals that migrated into a simulated food such as water or alcohol. The study evaluated the residue that remained after the food simulant was evaporated off. Union Carbide maintained that fluorine in the residue was almost entirely ionic fluorine – the kind added to toothpaste – and showed that the exposure was within tolerated levels. FDA scientists kept pushing back explaining that there was evidence the residue contained substances with a carbon-fluorine bond – a indicator of what we now refer to as PFAS. FDA finally relented, stating that “our general conclusion is that low molecular weight fluorocarbon-oxygen compounds should not be present in significant quantities.” (see page 195 of FOIA response).

We now know that levels of PFAS that were considered insignificant by FDA in the 1980s pose significant risks as evidenced by some of the agency’s recent actions. For those reasons, we reaffirm our call in our July 2021 blog and in the June 2021 citizens petition submitted by 11 organizations to FDA to reassess the safety of PFAS uses, including fluorinated polyethylene.

As part of that reassessment, FDA needs to revisit the concerns raised by the agency scientists in 1983 in light of the risks posed by PFAS. Specifically:

  • Nitrogen: In its August 5 letter, FDA states that a form of PFAS known as perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids “can form when the fluorination of HDPE occurs in the presence of oxygen or water, but not in the presence of nitrogen.” However, the agency does not acknowledge that commercially available nitrogen contains contaminants like oxygen. Food-grade nitrogen can have as much as 10,000 parts per million (ppm) of oxygen and 55 ppm of water. These levels could well be sufficient to generate significant amounts of PFAS.
  • PFAS leaching into food: Since the amount of PFAS in food considered “significant” is dramatically lower than in 1983 when FDA made its decision, the agency needs to evaluate whether it is practical – even with the purest nitrogen – to fluorinate plastic without making PFAS.

If the agency determines that the fluorine gas treatment process creates any PFAS, the law explicitly requires that FDA evaluate safety after taking into account the cumulative effects of related substances in the diet that have related health impacts. As with virtually all of its decisions, the agency failed to do that for its 1983 approval. Given the pervasive presence of PFAS in the environment and the additional PFAS FDA authorized for use in food packaging, this type of review is even more important.

Conclusion

In summary, FDA’s August 5, 2021 letter is an important step in the effort to protect consumers from PFAS in food. Now the agency needs to investigate the companies that provided fluorinated plastic packaging for food and cosmetic uses to determine whether the products complied with the law and take action. It must also reassess the safety of the packaging even if it complies with the specific conditions in its 1983 approval.

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FDA’s short-sighted approach to building trust in the safety of cell-cultured meat and seafood products

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

Consumer trust that products are safe to eat is essential to acceptance of any innovative food product. 

One of the most innovative food products expected to enter U.S. markets in coming years is cell-cultured meat and seafood. Producing these products by culturing cells in tanks and forming them into foods that look and taste like their conventionally produced counterparts is a technological achievement. Proponents enthusiastically tout these products as climate-friendly alternatives that provide real hope to meet the world’s growing demand for animal protein in a sustainable way that also minimizes animal welfare concerns.

Consumer trust that products are safe to eat is essential to acceptance of any innovative food product. That trust is built through a rigorous, transparent, and independent scientific review to ensure safety. Without that, questions linger that undermine widespread consumer adoption.

Unfortunately, we have serious concerns that the process the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may be planning to use to review the safety of cell-cultured meat and seafood is inadequate and will undermine consumer trust. From our perspective, the manufacturing process for cell-cultured meat and seafood is a significant departure from current practice and warrants careful scrutiny. FDA guidance is clear that, for these types of changes, the appropriate review options are a food additive petitions or the voluntary Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) notification process. We strongly recommend FDA rely on these existing options existing options rather than create a new approach.

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The Chemical Industry Hid Evidence of Harm from PFAS: 3 Takeaways

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

Yesterday, The Guardian published a powerful story by reporter Tom Perkins detailing how chemical manufacturers hid evidence of dangerous health impacts from certain types of PFAS and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not take sufficient and swift action to protect the public.

The story is largely based on data revealed in the FDA’s response to a Freedom of Information Act request by EDF and Environmental Working Group. The analysis showed that two major PFAS manufacturers, Daikin and DuPont, withheld safety information from the agency both by 1) not submitting it when the agency was considering whether the chemical should be on the market, and 2) not alerting the FDA when later analysis revealed a problem.

The companies’ failures are disturbing. What FDA did (or, more precisely, failed to do) after finding out is also disconcerting. While the agency’s scientists have taken strides to more fully understand the harm posed by PFAS, management has failed to adequately translate the science into timely action to protect people from toxic chemicals like these in their food.

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10 ways the incoming FDA Commissioner should protect people from toxic chemicals in food

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director.

The FDA’s critical role in the COVID-19 pandemic has brought intense interest in whom President Biden will nominate to lead the agency as its new commissioner.

While COVID-19 is the priority, the FDA obviously has many vital other responsibilities. Though it doesn’t get that much attention, one of the important roles of the agency is to protect the public from unsafe chemicals in food. Frankly, their record has been disappointing, but the new administration has an opportunity to fix some key problems that scientists and doctors have been warning us about for years.

Here are ten things the new FDA Commissioner should do to keep unsafe chemicals out of our food. The list ranges from actions on specific chemicals to broader reforms.

  1. Stop letting industry decide for themselves, in secret, whether chemicals are safe and can be added to food. EDF, represented by Earthjustice, and the Center for Food Safety, have sued the agency to close the dangerous “Generally Recognized as Safe” loophole.
  2. Systematically reassess dangerous food chemicals it has allowed to be used in food based on new information. The FDA approved the use of many chemicals in food decades ago, and we now have evidence that some of these are unsafe. A chemical shouldn’t be given a forever approval. There needs to be a systematic process to review the scientific evidence, especially when new risks come to light.
  3. Ban the use of perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel, from use in plastic packaging and equipment that comes into contact with food. Perchlorate gets into food, and exposure is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, infants, and young children, as it has been linked to developmental delays, reduced growth, and impaired learning abilities. We’ve sued the FDA to get this chemical out of food, and the case is pending.
  4. Comply with its 60-year-old Congressional mandate to look at the cumulative effect of chemical exposures people have when deciding whether to approve the use of related chemicals in food. EDF’s investigation of 900 approval decisions found that just one followed this common-sense mandate. The reality is that no one is exposed to just one chemical – so the agency shouldn’t be analyzing chemicals’ safety as if that were the case. FDA must respond to a petition filed by EDF and other organizations demanding that the agency follow the law and assess chemicals as classes.
  5. Drive down levels of heavy metals in food. Over the last decades, evidence has emerged of concerning levels of lead, arsenic, and cadmium in food consumed by children, such as rice, juice, and root crops like sweet potatoes and carrots. The FDA should move quickly and aggressively on its new commitment to set limits on heavy metals in food children eat and should also set limits for other food.
  6. Use modern science when evaluating if a chemical poses a health risk. The FDA is stuck in the past by relying on outdated, less accurate scientific methods and ignoring the evolving information we now know about chemical exposure. You wouldn’t insist on driving a car the Flintstones drove just because that was the first car ever.
  7. Prohibit lead from being added to materials that contact food, such as the tin that lines metal cans, and tighten limits for lead in bottled water. EDF’s analysis of FDA data found lead in 98% of certain canned fruits compared to 3% in fresh or frozen types. We’ve sent a formal petition to FDA requesting it immediately take action to ban these harmful and unnecessary uses of lead. Though it’s not a food safety issue, the FDA should also reject a challenge to its decision to ban lead acetate in hair dye. That challenge has put the FDA decision on hold, meaning that people are literally still putting lead on their head!
  8. Prohibit ortho-phthalates from being added to food packaging and processing equipment. These chemicals are known to disrupt hormones and harm brain development. The FDA is significantly overdue in meeting its legally required deadline to make a decision based on a petition from 2016 by EDF and nine other consumer, public health, and environmental groups to ban these chemicals.
  9. Be more transparent about the decisions it is making on chemicals in food. Information about FDA decisions should be publicly available without a Freedom of Information Act request and a months-long wait to learn more about agency actions on the chemicals in our food supply.
  10. Take aggressive action on harmful PFAS in food packaging and processing equipment. PFAS (Per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances) can provide water and grease resistance to paper and paperboard and can also leach into food. Growing evidence links PFAS to a wide range of serious health effects – from developmental problems to cancer. And now we know that many types of PFAS bioaccumulate in the body.
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