Food manufacturers received reassuring news when the Food and Drug Administration published the testing results of its first survey of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as “forever chemicals.” The survey showed 164 of the 167 foods tested had no detectable levels of the PFAS measured. Despite the positive news, uncertainty surrounds the impact of exposure to consumers, and environmental advocates are calling on the FDA to raise its level of scrutiny.
PFAS are a class of chemicals used by industries like aerospace, automotive, construction, consumer goods and electronics because of their resistance to grease, oil, water and heat. Certain PFAS also are allowed by the FDA for limited use in food packaging, food processing equipment and cookware.
Concern has been expressed over the widespread use of PFAS, and the compounds’ ability to remain intact in the environment means that over time cumulative amounts from past and current uses may result in rising overall levels of environmental contamination. Accumulation of certain PFAS has been shown through blood tests to occur in humans and animals. While the science surrounding potential health effects of certain PFAS is not yet definitive, mounting evidence suggests some of the chemicals may cause adverse health conditions, according to the FDA.
The FDA used its Total Diet Study (TDS), which monitors the levels of nutrients and contaminants in foods consumed in the United States, to determine the levels of PFAS in the food supply. The latest survey results included nationally distributed processed foods, including some baby foods, frozen foods, and foods in cans, boxes or jars.
The three samples collected by the FDA that had detectable levels of PFAS were fish sticks, canned tuna and protein powder. But, the FDA emphasized, based on the best available science, the agency had no evidence the levels found indicate a need to avoid any food.
The Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy organization, is calling on the FDA to do more, noting the agency’s testing methodology applied to a “limit of detection” and likely conceals the presence of PFAS in food. Further, the EWG said the FDA is ignoring other routes of exposure to PFAS like drinking water when advising consumers about the risks posed by the chemicals.
While the routes and impact of exposure to PFAS on consumer health remain unknown, this appears to be an issue that is not going to go away. In California, for example, legislation that will ban the use of PFAS in paper food packaging and require disclosure if they are used in cookware has passed the legislature and is now being considered by the state’s governor.
It is difficult to determine consumer concern about PFAS in food, but a warning may be seen in the International Food Information Council’s 2021 Food & Health Survey, which found “chemicals in food” to be the second highest food safety issue among those surveyed.
While the science surrounding the impact of PFAS is evolving, food and beverage manufacturers would be wise to understand where the chemicals may be present in their supply chains and be prepared to make a change if research shows a rise in consumer concern or safety.