Potentially harmful chemicals that were banned from children’s teething rings and rubber duck toys a decade ago may still be present in high concentrations in your child’s favourite meal: macaroni and cheese mixes made with powdered cheese.
The chemicals, called phthalates, can disrupt male hormones like testosterone and have been linked to genital birth defects in infant boys and learning and behaviour problems in older children. The chemicals migrate into food from packaging and equipment used in manufacturing and may pose special risks to pregnant women and young children.
The Food and Drug Administration has not banned their presence in foods, though a 2014 report to the Consumer Product Safety Commission urged federal agencies to assess risks “with a view to supporting risk management steps.” The report concluded that food, drugs and beverages, and not toys, were the primary source of exposure to phthalates.
Now a new study of 30 cheese products has detected phthalates
in all but one of the samples tested, with the highest concentrations found in the highly processed cheese powder in boxed mac and cheese mixes.
“The phthalate concentrations in powder from mac and cheese mixes were more than four times higher than in block cheese and other natural cheeses like shredded cheese, string cheese and cottage cheese,” said Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health
Strategy Center, one of four advocacy groups that funded the report. Others were the Ecology Center, Healthy Babies Bright Futures and Safer States.
The groups tested 10 different varieties of mac and cheese, including some that were labelled organic, and found high levels of phthalates
in all of them.
The tested products were purchased in the United States and shipped in the original packaging to VITO, the Flemish Institute for Technological Research in Belgium, where fat extracted from each product sample was analysed for 13 phthalates
using validated test methods, Belliveau said.
Some two million boxes of mac and cheese, a relatively inexpensive food that can be whipped up in minutes, are sold every day in the United States, according to 2013 figures from Symphony/IRI Group. Belliveau said consumers would have a hard time avoiding the chemical.
“Our belief is that it’s in every mac ‘n’ cheese product — you can’t shop your way out of the problem,” said Belliveau, who is urging consumers to contact manufacturers and pressure them to investigate how phthalates
are getting into their products and take steps to eliminate it. Nine of the cheese products tested were made by Kraft, which makes most of the macaroni and cheese products sold, though the group did not disclose the names of specific products tested. Officials with Kraft did not respond to requests for comment on the report and its findings.
Devon Hill, a lawyer in Washington who has experience with companies that make phthalates, said many phthalates
have been phased out of food processing and packaging, and that those still in use result in very low exposures. The cheese tests looked for the presence of 13 different phthalates
and detected all but two, with some food items containing up to six different phthalates
in a single product.
Environmental and food safety groups petitioned the FDA. last year to remove all phthalates
from food, food packaging and food processing and manufacturing equipment, though the petition has been delayed temporarily for technical reasons, said Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund, which is coordinating the petition process for 11 advocacy groups, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Working Group and others.
“A chemical is not allowed in food unless there is a reasonable certainty it will cause no harm,” Neltner said, adding that because of all the evidence regarding the potential harms of phthalates, “We don’t think the FDA. can say there is a reasonable certainty of no harm.”
An FDA spokeswoman said the agency regulates all substances in food contact materials that can be expected to migrate into food, including phthalates, and said there must be “sufficient scientific information to demonstrate that the use of a substance in food contact materials is safe under the intended conditions of use before it is authorised for those uses.”
are not deliberately added to food. They are industrial chemicals used to soften plastics and are used as solvents, in adhesives and in ink on packaging.
© 2017 The New York Times