The focus of consumers in recent months has been food safety in terms of COVID-19. But as the pandemic continues, a new focus is on toxic chemicals in food that is the result of the packaging, not a contaminant or virus. The issue of toxic chemicals in packaged food seems especially relevant now because the COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the “hoarder” or “prepper” in millions of Americans.
Especially during the first few weeks of the pandemic, packaged and canned foods, bottled water and paper products seemed to be quite literally flying off store shelves. Because so many people continue to stock up on packaged foods, now is a great time to consider food safety issues like toxins that could migrate from packaging into the foods we consume.
FDA Food Additive Regulations
The chemicals that make up plastic and other food packaging are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates these chemicals as “indirect food additives.”
Many states have enacted their own laws regarding use of toxic chemicals in food packaging. California is a well-known example because they require manufacturers to label products containing toxins as being a potential hazard. Washington state completely prohibits use of certain chemicals in food products.
While consumers continue to push for safer alternatives, the FDA’s food additive regulations do not seem to be fully addressing the danger of certain toxic chemicals in food. In the next section, we discuss three of the most common chemicals found in food packaging, and discuss how current regulations may not be enough to prevent harm.
Toxic Chemicals in Food
Plastic is one of the most common sources of packaging for foods. It is also a common ingredient in packaging that is paperboard, cardboard or aluminum. Plastic keeps food shelf-stable, fresh and free from bacterial contamination. But is the plastic itself safe?
Chemicals that make up plastic are known to cause serious health problems. Some of these chemicals can migrate from the packaging into the food itself, and thus, may be consumed. Researchers continue to explore a possible link between plastic-related chemicals and health problems like cancer, autism and birth defects.
The three most common chemicals found in food packaging that are linked to health problems are:
Phthalates are a common ingredient in plastic packaging as they increase flexibility. Research shows that phthalates can migrate into food at nearly every point in the supply chain. Phthalates have been found in sandwiches, cheeseburgers and Kraft macaroni and cheese products.
Phthalates are known to disrupt hormones and are linked to genital birth defects in infant boys. Exposure to phthalates is also linked to behavioral and learning problems in older children. Some studies also link phthalates to cancer. Despite multiple petitions and their prohibition on carcinogenic food contact materials, the FDA has not addressed the issue of phthalates as being unsafe in food packaging.
Bisphenol A (BPA)
The FDA considers BPA as a safe indirect food additive. BPA is commonly found in food cans, jars with metal lids and polycarbonate containers. BPA is an endocrine disruptor that mimics estrogen production in the body. Consuming BPA can cause an increase in body fat, decrease in fertility and a change in the puberty process. It is also linked to childhood obesity and heart disease.
The FDA has a long history with BPA. After multiple petitions went unanswered, in 2008, multiple retailers pulled polycarbonate containers and baby bottles from shelves. After that, the FDA banned BPA in baby bottles, cups and infant formula packaging. The decision to ban BPA came after the plastics industry stopped using it in certain products, rather than as a response to safety concerns.
Per- and polyfluouroalkyl substances (PFAS)
PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because they exist in the environment for extended periods of time. Forever chemicals can take thousands of years to properly break down. They can also accumulate in the human body to dangerous levels. PFAs are common in food packaging like food wrappers, pizza boxes, popcorn bags and compostable containers. The waxy-like film that keeps grease from escaping is made out of PFAS.
PFAS are linked to health problems including high cholesterol, thyroid problems, liver injury and cancer. It can also weaken the immune system after a diphtheria or tetanus shot. PFAS has also been found directly in food products, including ground turkey, cakes and tilapia.
Preventing Toxic Chemicals in Food
While some states are taking it upon themselves to regulate and monitor use of toxic chemicals in food products and packaging, there is more work to do. Consumers continue to petition for lawmakers to address chemicals and make food products safer. Even when the FDA fails to address consumer voices, businesses are speaking out.
Taco Bell, for example, has unveiled a plan to phase out all BPA, phthalates and PFAS from food packaging and products by 2025. The company says their decision is based on a responsibility to “improve public health.”
Have Questions about Toxic Chemicals in Food?
If you have questions or concerns about toxic chemicals in food and specific symptoms or health problems, talk to your healthcare provider. Tell him or her about the chemicals you are concerned about and why. For questions about chemicals or food regulation, or to file a complaint, you can contact the FDA online, or by calling 1-888-INFO-FDA.
If you have suffered a negative healthcare outcome due to a toxic chemical in food or food packaging, you may also find it helpful to contact Bad Food Recall. Our legal professionals can advise you of your legal rights and any options you have to hold the responsible party accountable for harming you. To contact Bad Food Recall, call us at 1-877-534-5750 or complete our online contact form.