FDA’s Regulations Fail to Address Toxic Chemicals in Food

The Lempert Report
August 05, 2020

Shirah Dedman is a student in the Food Safety Litigation course in the LL.M. Program in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law.

As part of her final assignment she wrote an essay that appeared in Food Safety news. This is what she had to say.

Covid-19 is bringing out the hoarder in all of us. Canned goods, packaged foods, and bottled water are flying off shelves almost as soon as they are stocked. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) waylays concerns that fresh produce may carry the virus. It’s easier for us to consider food safety in terms of pathogen contamination such as Salmonella and E-coli, or in the present case, Covid-19. What often remains unaddressed are the food safety issues presented by toxic chemicals within the very thing we hope is keeping our food safe in the first place: food packaging.

Plastic packaging is ubiquitously used in our food supply systems. Found in bottles, cans, and paperboard, plastics keep food fresh, stable, protract shelf life, keep pests out, and prevent bacterial contamination. 

However, chemicals that make up these plastics can migrate into food with which it comes into contact. And these chemicals are cause for concern having been linked to major health issues such as cancer, birth defects, and autism.

The FDA regulates chemicals used in packaging that come into contact with food as indirect food additives. The FDA exempts a food contact substance with a dietary exposure of less than 0.5 ppb or, if it is already cleared for use as a directive additive, exposure from the food contact use must be less than 1% of the Accepted Daily Intake (ADI). 

Here’s the problem according to Dedman, the migration standard doesn’t account for bioaccumulation of chemicals found in multiple products within a person’s diet. And many of the health issues associated with food additives typically happen when people are continuously exposed to small amounts over long periods of time.

There are currently three classification of chemicals found in food packaging that have gained widespread attention: phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

Phthalates can disrupt hormones and have been linked to genital birth defects in infant boys and learning and behavior problems in older children and been found to be linked to cancer.

Considered a safe indirect food additive by the FDA, BPA is found in soda and food cans and is a known endocrine disruptor. It can act like estrogen in the body and potentially change the timing of puberty, decrease fertility, increase body fat, and affect the nervous and immune systems. It’s also connected with childhood obesity, and heart disease. 

PFAS are known as “forever chemicals,” some PFAS persist in the environment and in our bodies. PFAS is approved for use on paper or cardboard to prevent grease from going through them. These include microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, fast food wrappers, and even compostable food containers.

PFAS have been linked to a variety of health issues, including cancers, reproductive problems, lower immunity after tetanus and diptheria vaccination, high cholesterol, thyroid function, and liver injury.

Isn’t it time for the FDA to wake up and legislate change?


We recived the following statement from Sherrie Rosenblatt VO Marketing & Communications from the Can Manufacturers Institute in response to this report:

First, let me remind you that food can linings, which protect the integrity of the can, prevent corrosion and provide the highest quality barrier to bacteria, while maintaining quality, flavor and freshness.  Second, I’m pleased to let you know that the can manufacturing industry has moved away from using bisphenols in next generation linings, with more than 95 percent of food cans now produced with non-BPA linings. These next-generation linings have been formulated over several years with carefully chosen components.

The development of can linings has always had a strong focus on consumer safety. Next generation of can linings have evolved over the last decade through an extensive and exhaustive search for components and formulations that maximize the safety and performance of light metal packaging. Every lining component used is evaluated by a safety risk assessment as part of a comprehensive pre-market review by the Food and Drug Administration and other national and international regulatory authorities. This is deliberately thorough and lengthy to validate the safety of next generation linings.

In this unprecedented time with COVID-19 pandemic, more and more families are relying on shelf-stable canned foods as a way to feed their families, so it is important that we provide them with accurate information on the benefits of food cans as an iron-clad  container that locks in the nutrients and locks out the pathogens.