Almost four years after traces of chemicals believed to cause health problems in children and reproductive problems in adults were found in macaroni and cheese packets for the mass market, Annie’s Homegrown has begun to work with its suppliers to resolve the offending material from their food processing equipment.
The presence of the chemicals known as orthophthalates rocked the consumers who rely on the staple foods, especially parents. Phthalates make rigid plastic more flexible and are commonly used in hoses and conveyor belts found in food manufacturing plants and in food packaging.
They can interfere with male hormones such as testosterone and have been linked to learning problems in children by some researchers. However, the plastics industry has argued that food products contain relatively small amounts of the chemicals, and food regulators have not ruled that they are dangerous to consumers.
The 2017 study, funded by environmental groups and not published in a peer-reviewed journal, found the chemicals in all 10 macs and cheeses tested, even though the brands were not identified.
Annie’s, known by its cute rabbit logo, announced its move in a statement on its website, saying the company is “working with our trusted suppliers to eliminate orthophthalates found in the packaging and food processing equipment that make the cheese manufacture, could be present and powdered cheese in our macaroni and cheese. “
In a statement, a spokeswoman for General Mills, who owns Annie’s, said, “We are determined to learn more in order to better understand this emerging problem and how Annie’s can be part of the solution.”
The economic and practical reality of trying to eradicate phthalates, which are found in many parts of the food manufacturing process, could be daunting.
The chemicals could end up in the food at many points along the supply chain, including on the farm, where flexible plastic tubing carries milk out of the barn, or in the manufacture of the cardboard container that the pasta is kept in. The chemicals tend to build up in high fat foods like cheese.
The obligation to remove phthalates from the manufacture of one type of food raises questions about the chemical content of the myriad of other products made with similar flexible plastic devices.
Still, health care advocates applauded General Mills for taking this step with Annie’s, one of their brands. General Mills bought Annie’s in 2014 and its popularity skyrocketed during the pandemic as domestic consumers turned to packaged food.
“People shouldn’t have to eat chemicals in their food if it could make them sick, especially if there are safer alternatives,” said Mike Belliveau, executive director of Defend Our Health, an environmental and health agency focused on the dangers of Phthalates.
Mr Belliveau’s group, formerly known as the Environmental Health Strategy Center, helped fund the study in 2017 that demonstrated the existence of the chemicals in food. Since then, he has been liaising with giant food companies like General Mills and Kraft about phthalates. Only General Mills opened a discussion with his group about leaking chemicals from the supply chain, he said. (Kraft did not respond to a request for comment on this article.)
“Annie’s updated the language on their website to reflect our new outside engagement,” Lee Anderson, a General Mills executive, wrote to the advocacy group in a December email viewed by the New York Times. “We are not planning any additional communication and are not looking for any.”
“While we know this is important for some consumers, we are not the focus of most of our consumers in these troubled times as we try to reassure them about the basic availability and value of our products,” the email continued away.
Mr. Anderson added that Annie’s had been discussing the implementation of the changes with suppliers and developing a “Supplier Verification Tool,” but that it would take some time to assess effectiveness.
Other companies have taken steps to limit the chemicals in their packaging, including Taco Bell, which has pledged to remove phthalates from its packaging by 2025. Ahold Delhaize USA, which operates grocery chains such as Stop & Shop and Hannafords, announced a “Sustainable Chemistry Commitment” to limit phthalates in its private label products.
Maine will ban food packaging containing phthalates “in an amount greater than incidental presence” from 2022.
But apart from Annie’s, few companies have made public commitments to removing phthalates from the manufacturing process.
The Organic Trade Association is convening a task force this winter to see how it can help its members address the problem. “But they also need packaging and suppliers there,” said Gwendolyn Wyard, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs for the trading group.
Phthalates have strong defenders, including Exxon Mobil, a leader in the chemical. The chemical industry rejects some of the studies on phthalates in food as “bad science” which is said to generate alarming headlines but is not based on rigorous research.
Kevin Ott, the executive director of the Flexible Vinyl Alliance, a trade group that Exxon is a part of, said many consumers and advocates are too quick to judge certain substances. “Any chemical that you can’t see, smell, or spell must be dangerous,” he said.
Mr Ott criticized how some studies have measured the presence of phthalates in macaroni and cheese in parts per billion. “It’s like a thimble in an Olympic swimming pool,” he said.
In 2008, Congress banned the use of many phthalates in children’s toys and ordered the Consumer Product Safety Commission to investigate the effects of several other phthalates.
Today, after all of the testing, “phthalates have basically been retired from toys,” Ott said. “No smart businessman will make toys with phthalates.”
Eating is a different story. The Food and Drug Administration has investigated the presence of phthalates in food packaging and manufacturing facilities. In an article published in 2018, a group of researchers from the agency concluded: “To date, there are no studies showing an association between human exposure to phthalates and adverse health effects.”
But the FDA hasn’t officially decided on the issue yet, despite researchers saying food is a top concern.
“Phthalates come through our skin, through our noses, into our bodies – we get them from everywhere,” said Shanna Swan, professor of environmental medicine and public health at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, who has studied the chemical’s effects on reproductive health. “But the main source is food.”
In a statement, an FDA spokeswoman said the agency is currently considering two petitions, including one filed five years ago by several environmental groups calling on regulators to restrict phthalates from food contact materials.
“Completing our review of these petitions and posting our response in the Federal Register is a priority for the FDA,” the agency said Friday.
In a book published this month, Count Down, Dr. Swan reported that a number of chemicals have contributed to a 50 percent decrease in sperm count over the past 40 years, and that exposure to certain phthalates could play a role in reproductive problems.
“This alarming rate of decline could mean that humanity cannot reproduce if the trend continues,” writes Dr. Swan in the book.
These problems are not caused by “something inherently wrong with the human body as it has evolved over time,” she writes.