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Supermarkets Must Halt Use of Storage Racks Made with Toxic Flame Retardant Chemical

For Immediate Release: 
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

WASHINGTON, -- In efforts to protect the nation’s food supply from further chemical contamination, Environmental Working Group (EWG) today urged the country’s largest grocery stores and supermarkets to suspend the use of plastic food storage racks that contain the toxic flame retardant chemical and neurotoxin commonly called Deca (decabromodiphenyl).

"In June of this year, Environmental Working Group wrote to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requesting an immediate halt to the use by the food industry of plastic pallets made with the neurotoxic flame retardant decabromodiphenyl ether (Deca)," wrote EWG’s co-founder and Senior Vice President for Communications and Policy, Richard Wiles, in a letter sent to the top executives of over 30 of the nation’s largest grocery store chains. "Deca is a neurotoxin and suspected carcinogen that persists in the environment and accumulates in human tissue. Millions of plastic pallets, each containing 3.4 pounds of Deca (according to industry estimates) are currently in use."

"We are writing to ask that you determine whether or not you or your suppliers are currently using plastic pallets, and if so, we urge you to immediately stop the use of these pallets by you or your suppliers until proper FDA approvals are received," added Wiles.

A standard food industry practice is "hydro-cooling" produce by submerging stacked pallets filled with fruits or vegetables in water or by dripping water over the pallets. As the water is recycled, significant levels of the neurotoxin Deca could accumulate, leaving a chemical residue on the produce.

There is growing concern that the practice of "hydro-cooling" could lead to Deca contamination of produce. On April 29, 2009 Dr. Elizabeth Sánchez of the FDA’S Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition advised a Washington, D.C.-area consulting firm that Deca is "not authorized" as a component of plastic pallets used in hydrocooling produce. She said that FDA required pre-market approval for the chemical "to be used in contact with food."

According to studies by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and academic scientists, Deca, like other flame-retardants, can disrupt brain and reproductive system development (Van der Ven 2008).

EPA has determined that research on Deca has yielded "suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential." It cites studies showing increased incidence of four different cancers and non-cancerous tumors in rats and mice. Studies of mice exposed to Deca for a single day reveal notable changes in behavior and activity levels that researchers attribute to the chemical’s neurotoxicity. These effects persist into adulthood and can worsen with age.

Oregon recently banned Deca statewide. Public health authorities in Maine and Washington State have restricted Deca, while state lawmakers in 13 states have proposed Deca bans this year.

NOTE: Wiles’ letter was sent to the top executives at Wal-Mart, Kroger Co., Costco, Supervalu, Safeway, Publix Supermarkets, Ahold USA, C&S Wholesale Grocers, Delhaize America, Meijer, H.E. Butt Grocery Co., Wakefern Food Corp., A&P, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Winn-Dixie Stores, Giant Eagle, Whole Foods Market, Inc., Trader Joe’s, Abertsons, Aldi, Associated Wholesale Grocers, Hy-Vee Food Stores, Save Mart Supermarkets, Wegmans Food Markets, Nash Finch Co., Unified Grocers, Roundy’s Supermarkets, Stater Brothers Markets, Raley’s Supermarkets and Harris Teeter.

Text of the letter below:

August 3, 2009
H. Lee Scott Jr.
President, CEO
Wal-Mart Stores
702 SW 8th Street
Bentonville, Arkansas 72716-8611
Dear Mr. Scott:
In June of this year, Environmental Working Group wrote to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requesting an immediate halt to the use by the food industry of plastic pallets made with the neurotoxic flame retardant decabromodiphenyl ether (Deca). Deca is a neurotoxin and suspected carcinogen that persists in the environment and accumulates in human tissue. Millions of plastic pallets, each containing 3.4 pounds of Deca (according to industry estimates) are currently in use.

We are writing to ask that you determine whether or not you or your suppliers are currently using plastic pallets, and if so, we urge you to immediately stop the use of these pallets by you or your suppliers until proper FDA approvals are received.

It is common practice in the food industry to hydro-cool fresh fruits and vegetables by submerging loaded pallets in water or by showering water over stacked pallets containing produce. Preliminary studies strongly suggest that Deca leaches from pallets into the cooling water. Because water is recycled numerous times during the hydro-cooling process, considerable levels of Deca residue could be left on hydro-cooled produce.
According to a series of public statements by the shipping industry’s largest plastic pallet user, iGPS, plastic pallets are now being used by General Mills, Borders Melon Company, PepsiCo, Cott, Okray Family Farms, and Martoni Farms, with trials up and running at Dole Foods and Kraft. This widespread use, if true, creates a significant opportunity for food contamination with Deca.

In an April 29, 2009 letter, Dr. Elizabeth Sánchez Furukawa of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at FDA made clear that plastic pallets containing Deca were "not authorized" for use in hydro-cooling, given the potential health risks and the likelihood that the chemical would come in contact with food. Furukawa wrote that "in order for it (Deca) to be used in contact with food under the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, it must have pre-market approval."

In press coverage of our letter to FDA, (http://www.foodqualitynews.com, July 22,09) a spokesperson for the agency made clear that the pre-market approvals have not been granted:
"If Deca is being used in food contact material and it is migrating to food as a result, then it would be a food additive requiring pre-market approval from FDA. No pre-market approval exists for Deca in food contact materials."

Food contaminated with Deca used in plastic pallets without pre-market approval could be deemed adulterated under the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, Sec. 402 (21 USC 342).
Oregon recently enacted a broad statewide ban on Deca. Public health authorities in Maine and Washington State have restricted Deca, and legislators in 13 states have proposed Deca bans this year. Studies of mice exposed to Deca for a single day reveal notable changes in behavior and activity levels that researchers attribute to the chemical’s neurotoxicity. These effects persist into adulthood and can worsen with age. Research on rats and mice showed increased incidence of four different cancers and non-cancerous tumors. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems these study results to be "suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential."

In addition, Deca can break down into related chemicals – Penta and Octa bromodiphenyl ether – whose production and importation is banned in the United States and Europe. There are an estimated 4 million Deca-treated plastic pallets in use today, with a significant portion likely used in the food industry.

Food should not be an exposure route for a neurotoxic flame retardant.

Sincerely,

Richard Wiles

Senior Vice President for Policy and Communications

Environmental Working Group

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EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment. http://www.ewg.org

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