PFAS in the Food Industry



PFAS in the Food Industry

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently confirmed that PFAS chemicals are present in the US food supply. They performed a series of testing that showed shocking results of PFAS levels contaminating consumer products such as meat, fish, dairy, grain and produce items. Here’s everything you need to know about PFAS.

What are PFAS?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of synthetic chemicals that are found in the environment that easily migrate into the air, soil, dust, water and food. This collection of chemicals include PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and nearly 5,000 other chemicals. PFAS have been manufactured and used in a wide range of industries worldwide. Studies have concluded that some of these chemicals in the PFAS group, specifically PFOA and PFOS, do not break down in the environment and accumulate over time in the human body. PFAS can be found in commercial household products like cleaning materials, repellents, non-stick products, and in drinking water. More commonly, food packaging with PFAS containing materials are contaminating food items. For more information on food packaging chemicals, read more here. Certain PFAS chemicals are no longer produced in the United States as a result of a major phase-out program by the FDA, due to the outrage among consumers about the dangerous health effects. Although PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured in the US, they are still produced internationally and imported among many different states in the US. The PFAS family retained the nickname “forever chemicals” because of their reputation for remaining in the environment permanently, spreading into public drinking water and food crops. 

What the Research Says about the Health Effects 

The health effects of the PFAS family have not been widely studied, resulting in small amounts of scientific evidence. Despite the little research, it is concluded by the scientific community that PFAS can be toxic to human health. PFAS are absorbed into the human body through contaminated food, water, and commercial products and bioaccumulate into fatty and connective tissues. The chemicals absorbed remain in the body for long periods of time - damaging cells, organs, and causing a range of adverse health impacts. PFAS have been linked to numerous endocrine disrupting effects, such as thyroid disease, decreased fertility, and hormone suppression. They also have been shown to contribute to high cholesterol, liver damage, and cause multiple forms of cancer. 

The Need for Government-Based Action 

The institutions that regulate chemicals found in the environment and the food system such as the FDA have a reputation for not taking action when action is needed. Numerous scientific studies found high levels of PFAS in food samples conducted by the FDA’s own lab facilities. The studies were on various samples of food items consumers see at the grocery store, such as meat, seafood, dairy, sweet potatoes, leafy greens and other packaged food items. The FDA chose not to make the results available to the public, and seemingly dismissed the reports all together. Once the results were leaked by environmental advocacy groups, the public was in outrage. The FDA released a statement regarding the chemical levels found in the samples, saying “Based on the available current science, the FDA does not have any indication that these substances are a human health concern...” 

The more dismissive governing agencies are about the chemicals used and found in the food system, the more their reputation grows for their lack of transparency. Concerned consumers and multiple advocacy groups petitioned the FDA to reconsider their choice of action earlier this year. In response, the FDA announced the initiation of an action plan to eradicate PFAS from drinking water. Although the FDA claims to be taking a “proactive, cross-agency approach”, no concrete action has taken place yet. Consumers are left to take action themselves in avoiding PFAS by choosing cleaner commercial products, and getting their food tested through independent lab testing. The most effective way to avoid PFAS exposure is to know the sources. Avoid stain-resistance treatments in furniture, carpets and clothing materials. Stray away from greasy/oily packaged or fast foods, as they often contain coatings with PFAS. Check your cosmetic and household products, and avoid products made with Teflon, fluorine, and ingredients that include the words “fluoro” or “perfluoro”. 

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4