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July 30, 2018

Some food packaging chemicals may not be safe, AAP warns

Daily Briefing

    The American Academy of Pediatrics in a policy statement last week urged Americans to avoid certain chemicals used in food processing, citing the potential negative health effects, and called on FDA to update its standards for reviewing those substances. 

    Technical report findings

    In a technical report, published in Pediatrics, AAP lists several chemicals that are intentionally added to food or indirectly added during the manufacturing process and "health concerns" associated with these chemicals.

    Specifically, the report called out:

    • Bisphenols, which are used in aluminum can linings and polycarbonate plastic containers;
    • Nitrates/nitrites, which are used as preservatives and to enhance color;
    • Perchlorates, which are used in food packaging;
    • Perfluoroalkyl chemicals, which are used to make paper resistant to grease; and
    • Phthalates, which are used to make plastics soft.

    There is a fear among experts that these chemicals can result in any number of side effects, including thyroid hormone disruption, endocrine disruption, effects on brain development, or an increased risk of obesity.

    For instance, AAP listed "endocrine disruption" as a potential health concern related to consumption of bisphenols from polycarbonate plastic containers and phthalates in plastic wrap. It listed thyroid hormone disruption as a health concern related to perchlorate in food packaging.

    Policy statement

    In the policy statement, AAP called for updated federal regulation and oversight of food additives.

    "Regulation and oversight of many food additives is inadequate because of several key problems in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act," AAP wrote. "Current requirements for a 'generally recognized as safe' (GRAS) designation are insufficient to ensure the safety of food additives and do not contain sufficient protections against conflict of interest."

    According to AAP, about 1,000 food additives used today received a GRAS designation in the 1950s. However, AAP said the GRAS designation process does not require FDA approval, and does not encompass the impact of chemicals that can be absorbed by food indirectly through packaging or dyes.

    In turn, the AAP has called for a more rigorous testing process that entails retesting chemicals to ensure they are not toxic.

    According to Leonardo Trasande, director of the Division of Environmental Pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine and lead author of the statement and report, there are "critical weaknesses" in the FDA's regulatory framework for added chemicals, adding that the government currently doesn't do enough to ensure the safety of these chemicals.

    Further, AAP said FDA lacks "adequate authority to acquire data on chemicals on the market or reassess their safety for human health." Congressional action may be required to allow FDA to review such data, AAP said. 

    The effects of food additives on children in particular are of specific concern, the AAP said, as children are "more sensitive to chemical exposures because they eat and drink more, relative to body weight, than adults do, and are still growing and developing."

    According to Trasande, children are "uniquely vulnerable" because "[t]here can be fundamental disruptions in various endocrine functions that can manifest not only in early childhood but potentially in later life as a result of prenatal or infant exposure."

    Action steps

    As for what consumers can do, Trasande recommends "reducing canned food consumption [and] avoiding microwaving plastic." He added that emphasizing "fresh fruit and vegetable consumption as opposed to other highly processed or packaged foods" is important.

    AAP also recommended consumers avoid processed meats, especially during pregnancy, as well as food in plastic packaging labeled with recycling codes three, six, and seven, unless those plastics are labeled as "biobased" or "greenware," signifying they're not made with bisphenols.

    In addition, the report said parents should avoid heating up food in plastic containers, as many of these containers are treated with bisphenol A (BPA), which can disrupt hormones within the body and cause fertility problems. FDA in 2012 banned companies from using BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups, but the agency insists the chemical is safe for food packaging.

    Reaction from industry stakeholders

    FDA declined to comment on the report. However, Megan McSeveney, an FDA spokesperson, said, "Food safety is at the core of the agency's mission to protect and promote public health for our nation's consumers. We take seriously our commitment to the consumers and industry who look to the FDA for important guidance when it comes to our nation's food supply, including the safety of substances used in food."

    The American Chemistry Council, which represents companies within the chemistry industry, said in a statement that consumers "should know that all plastics intended for contact with food are reviewed for safety and must meet stringent FDA safety requirements before they can be used in food packaging." They added, "Plastics packaging is critical to protecting the quality and integrity of food, and to help in the safe transportation and storage of food" (Ebbs, ABC News, 7/24; Moulite, CNN, 7/23; Trasande et al., Pediatrics [1], July 2018; Trasande et al., Pediatrics [2], July 2018).

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