For the FDA, toxic chemicals are a kitchen table issue

When Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, testifies before a Senate spending committee on Thursday, she will likely face a lot of questions about toxic chemicals in food.

For Congress – and for many consumers – toxic chemicals and metals in food have become a kitchen table issue. Consider:

  • New parents are increasingly alarmed to learn that baby food may contain high levels of arsenic, lead and other toxic metals that may affect their babies’ brains.
  • Recent studies have also raised concerns about food additives like titanium dioxide, a chemical in Skittles that may damage DNA, and TBHQ, a chemical in Pop-Tarts that may damage the immune system.
  • Consumer advocates are urging the FDA to ban the use of the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, which have been linked to cancer and other serious diseases, in food packaging.

So it will be no surprise if Congress insists that the FDA move more quickly to address toxic chemicals in food – an issue that consumers rank ahead of the foodborne pathogens that cause illness.

Here are five questions Woodcock should be prepared to answer when she appears before the Senate:

  • When will the FDA close loopholes that let chemical companies decide what’s safe? For decades, the agency has allowed chemical companies, not the FDA, to decide whether food chemicals are safe. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D.-Conn.) has introduced a bill to close these loopholes, but the FDA does not have to wait to protect consumers.
  • Will the FDA take a second look at chemicals of concern? Even when the FDA reviews the safety of food chemicals, the agency uses outdated science and often relies on decisions made many decades ago. Titanium dioxide and TBHQ were last meaningfully reviewed for safety in the 1960s.
  • Why can’t the FDA move faster to address toxic metals in baby food? The FDA has proposed to set action levels baby food companies must meet, but final levels for arsenic may not be set until 2024. Ten thousand babies will start eating solid foods today, so we have no time to waste.
  • When will the FDA act to ban phthalates? Phthalates – chemicals used to strengthen plastics – have been linked to serious health problems, including harm to the developing brain. But the FDA has not responded to a 2016 petition to ban phthalates from food packaging.
  • When will the FDA act to ban PFAS? PFAS have also been linked to an array of serious health problems, including harm to the immune system. Four states have banned PFAS in food packaging, and food companies are reformulating food packaging, but the FDA has so far refused to act.
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