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  1. FDA Voices

FDA Actions are Reducing Exposure to Contaminants in Our Most Vulnerable Populations

Catching Up with Califf Main Image includes photo of Dr. Califf

By: Robert M. Califf, M.D., Commissioner of Food and Drugs

In part 2 of this series on food, I’d like to discuss the part of our mission to help safeguard the food supply that includes the evaluation of the use of chemicals as food ingredients and substances that come into contact with food, and monitoring the food supply for chemical contaminants. The agency takes action when we find that a particular level of a contaminant is associated with a significantly elevated risk of an adverse health effect.  

Backing up for a moment, you might be wondering why or how chemicals could even be in the food supply. Chemicals may be used in food, during food production and in packaging for a useful purpose, such as to preserve quality, add nutritional value, improve texture or appearance, extend shelf life and protect food from pathogens that can contaminate food and make people sick. Part of our job is to oversee industry’s obligation to make sure that intentional use of chemicals in food or for food contact purposes is safe.

Other chemicals may enter the food supply through contamination. For example, environmental contaminants can be present in foods because they are in the soil, water or air where foods are grown, raised or processed. Process contaminants, such as undesired chemical by-products, can form during food processing, especially when heating (cooking), drying or fermenting foods. The FDA oversees food manufacturers’ responsibility for marketing safe foods.

Reducing Levels of Inorganic Arsenic and Lead, and Closer to Zero

In addition to monitoring the food supply in general, the FDA has prioritized reducing levels of inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. This has resulted in close to a 30% reduction followed by the agency’s establishment of a 100 ppb (part per billion) action level for infant rice cereal. Additionally, our proposed action levels to reduce levels of lead in foods in processed foods intended for babies and young children, could result in as much as a 24-27 % reduction in exposure to lead from these foods.

Our work to date has resulted in significant progress in reducing childhood exposure to contaminants from food and the FDA’s Closer to Zero initiative builds on this progress. We’d all like it if we could reduce this exposure to zero, but in recognition that it will take time, Closer to Zero sets forth the agency’s approach to reducing exposure to lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury in foods commonly eaten by babies and young children to the lowest possible levels. It’s a multi-phase, science-based, iterative approach to encourage industry to adopt agriculture and processing practices and achieve our goal of getting levels of these environmental contaminants in foods closer to zero over time. We have prioritized babies and young children because their smaller body sizes and metabolism make them more vulnerable to the harmful effects of these contaminants. 

Just as the science of bacterial contamination of food has accelerated with whole genome sequencing, the measurement of chemicals in food and our understanding of downstream health consequences is improving rapidly with advances in the technology of measurement in food and the environment. Furthermore, the understanding of the population and individual health effects is in a new era now that complex biology and population health measurement benefit from the digital era. We’re excited about supporting increasingly precise guidance for reducing health risk due to environmental or added chemical contamination.

Catch up with you next time. 


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