Chemicals May Be Another Food-Safety Concern

The Food Safety Modernization Act, if it survives the political process, would strengthen the FDA and hold food producers to higher safety standards. The bill reflects a growing national concern about bacterial contamination of foods—from spinach to eggs—which sickens 76 million Americans and claims the lives of thousands each year. But while it would go a long way toward dealing with pathogens in our food supply, the bill largely ignores a different type of food-safety worry: hazardous man-made chemicals.

Just last week, a study in Environmental Health Perspectives found disturbingly high levels of a flame-retardant chemical in a sample of butter. The compound, a polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), is widely used in electronics and furniture, and is associated with developmental and reproductive issues, cancer, and other health problems. It appears that the butter was contaminated by the PBDE from its paper wrapping, but how the chemical got into the packaging is a mystery—and of great concern. "Flame retardants should clearly not be in food at all," says lead researcher Arnold Schecter, a public-health physician at the University of Texas.

Butter is not the only food known to be contaminated with PBDEs—they're ubiquitous in fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy—but it is the first found to contain them at such a high concentration, Schecter says. Because there is no regulatory testing for these chemicals, it's difficult to know how much of the nation's food supply might be contaminated at high levels.

PBDEs are also not the only problematic chemicals that can show up on the dinner table. The industrial byproduct dioxin and the hormone-disrupting chemical bisphenol A (BPA), which seems to leach into food from polycarbonate bottles and can linings, are among other common ones. Scientists know that these kinds of compounds get into our blood, from food and other sources, and sometimes accumulate in our bodies.

What's less clear is the threshold concentration at which these chemicals become harmful. Further research may clarify that, but in the meantime experts say it's worth trying to get these chemicals out of food whenever possible. "Getting rid of PBDE would probably be relatively simple if we could track down how it's entering the food supply—but that's the hard part," says Janice Huwe, a toxicologist at the USDA. Until we unravel the mystery, it's one more reason to go easy on the butter.