The agency tasked with protecting Americans’ foods, personal care products, and medicines is in desperate need of reform
Contaminants in our food and household products have been linked to disease outbreaks, cancer, birth defects, and brain impairments.
The FDA has allowed unsafe chemicals in food.
- Seafood: The FDA allowed unsafe levels of oil spill contaminants in seafood following the BP oil spill.
- Food additives: The FDA permits use of hormone disrupting chemicals in canned foods and food packaging.
The FDA has failed to take action on known health threats.
- Hand soaps: Triclosan and triclocarban, both hormone disrupting chemicals, continue to be used in “antibacterial” hand soaps more than 30 years after risks were first identified.
- Meat production: FDA has failed to address the connection between the misuse of antibiotics in meat production and the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
- Shampoos: Despite safer alternatives, FDA allows the toxic chemical lindane, a neurotoxin and endocrine disruptor, in lice treatments.
The FDA has conducted insufficient testing.
- Produce: The FDA only tests a minuscule fraction of fruits and vegetables for harmful pesticide residues.
- Seafood: The FDA relies on outdated and minimal mercury testing and fails to monitor for other chemical contaminants in seafood.
When the FDA was created more than 100 years ago, it was tasked with assuring the safety of human and animal drugs and our nation’s food supply. In recent years, however, the FDA has been plagued by scandalous mistakes that have shaken public confidence: failing to protect people from dangerous drugs, widespread contamination outbreaks in foods such as spinach and eggs, and tainted imports, such as dog food and milk products containing melamine.
Sadly, these examples are only the tip of the iceberg.
To protect public health the FDA should:
- Set health-protective standards for chemical contaminants such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates in food and personal care products.
- Use modern scientific methods to monitor the food supply for chemical contaminants including pesticides.
- Finalize long-delayed decisions, such as a ban on ineffective and toxic “anti-microbial” chemicals in soaps.
- Eliminate the unnecessary use of antibiotics on healthy livestock in order to preserve lifesaving medicines for sick people.
- Ban the toxic chemical lindane from lice shampoos and lotions.
- Improve food safety by setting a health-protective standard for oil-related carcinogens and toxins in seafood.
- Improve FDA accountability and scientific credibility.
A Closer Look at Reform Priorities for the FDA
Gulf Coast seafood
The BP oil spill contaminated the food chain of one of the most productive fisheries in the U.S. with oil, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals. The FDA’s risk assessment and policies for re-opening these areas to fishing significantly underestimated the potential health risks to vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, children, and local subsistence fishers. The risk assessment methods FDA used to calculate allowable levels of oil spill contaminants in Gulf seafood relied on outdated science. As a result, FDA set levels up to 10,000 times too high to protect the most vulnerable populations from increased cancer risk resulting from exposure to PAHs.
Endocrine disruptors as food additives
Thousands of chemicals have been approved for use in food, including hormone disrupting chemicals such as BPA and phthalates, despite the fact that food is a major source of exposure to these known reproductive and developmental toxicants. Thousands of other additives have been allowed for use in food without adequate toxicity testing, and the FDA continues to rely on outdated science when reviewing chemical safety.
Toxic chemicals in hand soaps and other personal care products
Consumers in the United States spend almost $1 billion per year on "antibacterial" soaps and other products containing the active ingredients triclosan or triclocarban, resulting in widespread environmental and human contamination. Though the FDA has stated that there are valid concerns about the effects of daily use of these products, and that there is no evidence that they are any more effective than plain soap and water, it has failed to finalize a document first drafted in 1978 that would prohibit their use.
Misuse of antibiotics in meat production
Approximately 70% of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are used on animals at low doses in feed and water. The aim is to promote faster weight gain in livestock and help prevent infection created by unsustainable, and often unsanitary, practices that cram thousands of animals together in "factory farms." Many of these antibiotics are also used in humans or affect drugs used in human medicine, and their misuse in agriculture has been linked to the public health crisis of antibiotic resistance in humans. The FDA has recognized this threat since the mid-1970s, but has largely failed to address the problem.
Failure to ban lindane, a toxic pesticide, for use in shampoos and creams
Lindane is a DDT-related pesticide, a known neurotoxic and hormone disruptor that accumulates in body fat where it lingers for years. It has been banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is being phased-out globally by international treaty. Despite that, the FDA still allows the use of lindane to treat head lice and scabies, even though safer alternatives are readily available.
Pesticide residue monitoring
Food imports have more than doubled over the past decade, with seafood and fresh produce at the top of the list of imported products. But the FDA’s monitoring of pesticide residues on produce remains woefully inadequate. The FDA tests only 0.00002% of the fruits and vegetables available for sale, and then looks for only a fraction of the toxic pesticides used on produce. Even with this limited testing, the FDA routinely finds unacceptable levels of pesticide residues, suggesting that this is a widespread and unaddressed public health issue. Adding to the concern are recent studies that suggest that residues on food may be an important route by which kids are exposed to harmful pesticides.
The FDA conducts no comprehensive assessment of chemical contaminants in seafood despite concerns about the presence of multiple contaminants ranging from metals, particularly mercury, to hormones and antibiotics. And it’s not just imported seafood. In 2010, the FDA allowed the resumption of commercial shrimp harvesting in coastal waters following the BP oil spill based on the results of only 67 samples.