Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director at Environmental Defense Fund.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.