Opinion: Tackling toxics in food must be priority for new FDA commissioner

Troubling news about toxics in our food grows daily, with chemicals and metals of concern contaminating popular products from Skittles to Pop Tarts.

That’s why President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Food and Drug Administration should prioritize tackling those risks.

Biden last week nominated former FDA Commissioner Robert Califf to return to that position, which he held for the last year of the Obama administration. If confirmed by the Senate, Califf needs to put the “F” back in “FDA” by using its regulatory power to ensure food safety, such as banning the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS from product packaging.

Consumers says toxic chemicals in food is one of their top concerns, especially those in food marketed to children. But the FDA, which is charged with protecting the food supply from toxins, has largely let food and chemical companies decide whether chemicals and contaminants linked to everything from cancer to lower IQ should be in our food.

The need to act is urgent, as shown by the discovery of toxic heavy metals in baby food. Many parents were shocked when congressional investigators revealed trusted baby food brands contain high levels of metals like arsenic and lead that could harm their baby’s developing brains.

Yet FDA officials have long known that baby food could be contaminated with high levels of arsenic or lead – and have largely failed to set limits that baby food companies must meet. It was not until this year that the agency even told producers of their duty to reduce toxics in their food.

Or consider the risks of food laced with PFAS, which are linked to cancer, reproductive harm and immune system harms that weaken the effectiveness of vaccines.

For decades, FDA has allowed PFAS in food packaging, despite knowing these toxic chemicals, which build up in our blood, could migrate into the food we eat. In recent years, seven states have moved the ban PFAS from packaging as the health risks – long hidden from the public – became common knowledge.

But rather than ban PFAS from food packaging, FDA has downplayed these risks.

And some harmful chemicals are even intentionally added to food, including substances like BHA, TBHQ and titanium dioxide. Some of these chemicals were approved by FDA for use in food more than 50 years ago to make processed food taste better or last longer. Many are added to products marketed to kids, including Skittles and Starburst.

Other countries have methodically reviewed – and even banned – some of these additives, but the FDA has largely declined to ask, in light of new science, whether these chemicals remain safe.

Most food chemicals evade FDA review and enter the marketplace through a waiver in federal food safety law known as the Generally Recognized as Safe, or GRAS, loophole, intended for ingredients that were obviously safe to bypass review. Instead, with FDA’s complicity, novel chemicals previously unknown to science are being added to food, thanks to the loophole.

So it’s good news the FDA may soon have a new commissioner with Califf, an experienced regulator with a track record of tackling the risks of toxic substances.

If confirmed to lead the agency again, Califf should immediately ban PFAS from food packaging. A toxic forever chemical has no place in our food. Safer alternatives are available.

He should also accelerate FDA’s timelines to set mandatory standards for toxic metals in baby food. Every day, 10,000 babies will start eating solid food. Parents cannot wait until 2024 or later for FDA to set standards for baby food companies. Califf should immediately require baby food companies to test for metals and post the results.

And he should move quickly to close loopholes that let the chemical companies – not the FDA – decide whether food chemicals are safe. He should also insist that chemicals that have not been subject to meaningful review for decades get a second look for safety concerns.

In his previous term as FDA commissioner, Califf demonstrated he understands that repeat exposure to toxic chemicals in our food and in personal care products like sunscreen pose serious health risks.

Given another chance to serve, he should seize the opportunity to protect consumers – especially babies and children – from needless exposures to dangerous toxics.

Iris Myers is a communications associate with the Environmental Working Group. Scott Faber is a senior vice president of government affairs for EWG.Their views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.

Banner photo: Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf in 2016. Last week President Joe Biden nominated Califf to again lead the FDA. (Credit: Governor Earl Ray Tomblin/flickr)