But critics now question that logic. For one thing, it doesn’t take into account the emerging science on chemicals that interfere with natural hormones and might be harmful at much lower doses than has been thought to cause health problems. Animal studies have found that exposing fetuses to doses of BPA below the FDA’s safety threshold can affect breast and prostate cells, brain structure and chemistry, and even later behavior.
According to Jane Muncke, a Swiss researcher who has reviewed decades’ worth of literature on chemicals used in packaging, at least 50 compounds with known or suspected endocrine-disrupting activity have been approved as food-contact materials.
“Some of those chemicals were approved back in the 1960s, and I think we’ve learned a few things about health since then,” says Thomas Neltner, director of a Pew Charitable Trusts project that examines how the FDA regulates food additives. “Unless someone in the FDA goes back and looks at those decisions in light of the scientific developments in the past 30 years, it’s pretty hard to say what is and isn’t safe in the food supply.”
FDA spokesman Doug Karas in an e-mail interview said that before approving new food-contact materials, the agency investigates the potential for hormonal disruption “when estimated exposures suggest a need.” But FDA officials don’t think the data on low-dose exposures prove a need to revise that 0.5 ppb exposure threshold or reassess substances that have already been approved.
Another criticism is that the FDA doesn’t consider cumulative dietary exposure. “The risk assessments have been done only one chemical at a time, and yet that’s not how we eat,” Schecter notes. (Karas counters that “there currently are no good methods to assess these types of effects.”)
“The whole system is stacked in favor of the food and packaging companies and against the protecting of public health,” Nudelman, of the Breast Cancer Fund, says. She and others are concerned that the FDA relies on manufacturers to provide migration data and preliminary safety information, and that the agency protects its findings as confidential. So consumers have no way of knowing what chemicals, and in what amounts, they are putting on the table every day.
It’s not just consumers who lack information. The companies that make the food in the packages can face the same black box. Brand owners often do not know the complete chemical contents of their packaging, which typically comes through a long line of suppliers.
What’s more, they might have trouble getting answers if they ask. Nancy Hirshberg, vice president of natural resources at Stonyfield Farm, describes how in 2010, the organic yogurt producer decided to launch a multipack yogurt for children in a container made of PLA, a corn-based plastic. Because children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of hormone disrupters and other chemicals, the company wanted to ensure that no harmful chemicals would migrate into the food.
Stonyfield was able to figure out all but 3 percent of the ingredients in the new packaging. But when asked to identify that 3 percent, the plastic supplier balked at revealing what it considered a trade secret. To break the impasse, Stonyfield hired a consultant who put together a list of 2,600 chemicals that the dairy didn’t want in its packaging. The supplier confirmed that none were in the yogurt cups, and a third party verified the information.
Freinkel is the author of “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.” This article was produced in collaboration with the Food and Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture and environmental health.