EDF Health

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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Think PFAS in food packaging are safe simply because FDA accepted their use? Think again.

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

PFAS manufacturers’ claims that the agency demands scientific data, including toxicity and exposure, and conducts a rigorous review before allowing the use of the chemicals in contact with food are not accurate.

Per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS)—recently dubbed “forever chemicals”—have received a large amount of national attention, mostly due to contamination of drinking water affecting millions of Americans. Since June 2019, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its testing results from three studies, questions have arisen about food as a source of PFAS exposure. The main routes by which PFAS enter the food supply are environmental contamination—such as from nearby chemical manufacturing facilities, airports or Department of Defense operations—and from food packaging and processing equipment.

With greater attention on PFAS in food, we’ve noticed several misleading PFAS manufacturers’ talking points asserting that FDA review and acceptance is required for any PFAS to be used in contact with food, and that, due to this review, PFAS that go through this process are safe. However, their claims that the agency demands scientific data, including toxicity and exposure, and conducts a rigorous review before allowing the use of the chemicals in contact with food are not accurate.

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Time for a safer food supply: The legal challenge to FDA’s GRAS Rule

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director, Environmental Defense Fund

This blog initially was published as a guest column in Chemical Watch on September 9, 2019. After publication, FDA filed its reply brief to the plaintiff’s August 23, 2019 brief. The briefings are complete and the case awaits a decision by the judge.

Litigation is a time-consuming and often inefficient means to fix a broken regulatory system. However, when there is a fundamental disagreement about a regulatory agency’s responsibilities under the law, it is an essential option. Such is the case with the “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) exemption from the requirement for pre-market approval of food additives in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) interprets this exemption as allowing companies to determine whether a substance’s use is GRAS in secret without any notice to the agency.

Next year, I anticipate a federal district court will make a final decision on a lawsuit[1] challenging the FDA’s 2016 GRAS Rule that formalized the agency’s broad interpretation of the exemption and its narrow interpretation of its responsibilities under the FFDCA to “protect the public health by ensuring that . . . foods are safe, wholesome, sanitary, and properly labeled . . . .” (21 U.S.C. §393(b)). It would come a decade after the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress, concluded that “FDA’s oversight process does not ensure the safety of all new GRAS determinations.” The GRAS Rule does little to address the shortcomings described by GAO.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), represented by Earthjustice, and the Center for Food Safety (CFS) are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit asking the court to declare the GRAS Rule unlawful and vacate the rule. On August 23, we filed with the court our response to the agency’s brief on both parties’ motions for summary judgment. FDA is expected to file a reply in September. Based on these briefs, the court may order oral arguments before making a decision.

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Without a food safety overhaul for additives, the innovative food craze could spiral out of control

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

At an FDA-sponsored conference, EDF proposed a new path forward to ensure innovative food ingredients are safe by overhauling how food additives are regulated today.

Every day brings reports of new ingredients that food innovators around the world have developed to meet consumer demands for a healthier and more sustainable food supply. The innovations range from new ways to extract useful additives from existing sources such as algae to bioengineering to make novel ingredients like sweeteners or proteins that can be grown in a tank instead of on a farm.

At EDF, we encourage innovation that helps communities and the environment thrive, especially in the face of the threats posed by climate change. However, an innovator’s bold claims, especially those involving food safety, must be closely scrutinized before the additive hits the marketplace. Given the potential for harm to consumers, we cannot simply take a company’s assertion of safety at face value – there must be transparency and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must provide an independent review.

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Chemours asks FDA to suspend its approved uses of PFAS in food packaging

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

Politico reported today that Chemours notified the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that it had officially abandoned its three approved food packaging uses of per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) and asked the agency to withdraw its Food Contact Substance Notifications (FCNs) for those uses. We do not know with certainty what prompted Chemours to abandon its PFAS products for food packaging or whether they were ever used in the United States. Based on past experience, we anticipate that FDA will grant the request.

This action takes us one step closer to reducing people’s exposure to these chemicals linked to an array of health risks posed by PFAS at extremely low levels. Additionally, the action should serve as an incentive for other companies to do the same.

Chemours also has FCNs for six PFAS uses in repeat-use food contact articles like gaskets and seals. The company apparently has not asked the agency to abandon these uses. We suspect that the PFAS-treated gaskets may still be in service even if it has stopped treating new gaskets with the chemicals.

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FDA must abandon its flawed assumptions when reviewing safety of approved PFAS uses in food

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

All the PFAS uses allowed by FDA that we reviewed had estimated exposures exceeding the most protective minimal risk level for PFOS proposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In its June 2019 release of a webpage dedicated to per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in food, FDA stated that it is “reviewing the limited authorized uses of PFAS in food contact applications.” As we mentioned in a previous blog, we were pleased to see FDA’s public position on PFAS but we highlighted three major concerns that could impact the ongoing safety review and questioned the conclusion that all is fine. In this blog, we discuss the implications of FDA’s statements on its review of 62 authorized PFAS uses in contact with food and make recommendations to the agency as it proceeds with this promising effort.

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