EDGE Scientists Argue for Updating Food Safety Regulations

In the United States, we usually feel confident that food we bring home from the grocery store is safe. Its quality and safety are monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for pesticide residues and by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for food additives and contaminants after all.

       Few of us realize that the rules governing FDA regulation of food safety date back to the 1950s and allow additives that are “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) to be exempted from adequate testing. This GRAS loophole results in an insufficient assurance of food safety because, among other things, it allows the use of thousands of food additives that have not been thoroughly tested for toxicity—a fact that concerns Associate Professor Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana and her colleagues at The American Academy of Pediatrics.
Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana is the Co-Director of the EDGE Center’s Developmental & Reproductive Disorders Collaborative Research Team. Photo by UW Medicine. 
       Dr. Sathyanarayana is an expert on the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on child development and also the Co-Director of the EDGE Center’s Developmental & Reproductive Disorders Collaborative Research Team. Recently she co-authored a technical report and a policy statement in the scientific journal Pediatrics, together with EDGE toxicology Ph.D. graduate student Rachel Shaffer, and Associate Professor Leonardo Trasande of the New York University School of Medicine, urging Congress to change the guidelines so that the FDA can collect more data about food additives.
Dr. Rachel Shaffer is an EDGE Ph.D. student in UW's toxicology program. Photo by Jeremy Shaffer. 
       In their technical report, Sathyanarayana and Shaffer point out that very few of the chemicals used in food and food packaging in the U.S. have been tested for reproductive toxicology (only 263 out of 3941 chemicals listed on the FDA “Substances Added to Food” website) and even fewer for developmental toxicology (only two of the same 3941). Children are particularly susceptible to the damaging effects of endocrine disruptors because 1. they eat and drink more relative to their size; 2. their systems for metabolizing and detoxifying chemicals are not as well developed; and 3. their bodies are going through critical hormone-dependent developmental stages, the disruption of which can cause irreversible damage and persistent adverse health effects later in life.

       Several categories of compounds are of particular concern to pediatricians. These include the bisphenols and phthalates used to in plastic food containers and manufacturing equipment; the perfluoroalkyl chemicals used in grease-proof paper and paperboard; the perchlorates used in food packaging; and the nitrates and nitrites used as preservatives and color-enhancers, particularly in meat. Growing evidence suggests that these compounds are associated with a range of health problems from obesity and cancer to disruptions in hormone systems and reproductive and neurological development.
       The report also includes steps individuals can take to minimize their exposure, including buying more fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables and fewer processed meats; avoiding microwaving in plastic containers and wrapping when possible; and using alternatives to plastics such as glass or stainless steel.
       Despite these recommendations, Sathyanarayana and Shaffer emphasize that the purpose of these articles is to encourage better federal regulation. “Our real goal here is to prompt policy change. The burden should not be placed on individuals or families; instead, we need stronger national policies to ensure that direct and indirect food additives are not harmful,” said Shaffer. Sathyanarayana adds “We did this story because most people don’t know that chemicals can be added to their foods without adequate safety/toxicity data.”
       Access to the full technical report is available here and the policy statement here.