By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Annie’s Homegrown has vowed to eliminate ortho-phthalates from its packaged mac and cheese, according to the New York Times, Annie’s Pledges to Purge a Class of Chemicals From Its Mac and Cheese.
Company strategy stands in contrast to that of Kraft, which has yet to match the pledge, and instead has focused on rosy-tinged marketing gimmicks, as I wrote last week in Valentine’s Day Food Security Special: Hold the Pink Kraft Dinner, Serve Up Comfort Food. The eponymous Annie’s was started by a real person but is now owned by General Mills.
Fear not, patient readers, my decision to write two posts a week apart on boxed macaroni and cheese doesn’t portend any intention to launch a new Naked Capitalism mac and cheese beat.
But the NYT story reveals so much that’s wrong with the current system of U.S.food regulation, I thought it worth taking a look at the Annie’s decision.
Outside of Annie’s Website, No One Mistakes Packaged Mac and Cheese for Health Food, So What’s the Big Deal?
As the NYT tells the story, ortho-phthalates – chemicals used to make plastic more pliable – are widely found in packaged mac and cheese – including the Annie’s premium organic brand:
Nearly four years after traces of chemicals believed to cause health problems in children and reproductive issues in adults were found in mass-market macaroni and cheese packets, Annie’s Homegrown has begun working with its suppliers to eliminate the offending material from their food processing equipment.
The presence of the chemicals, called ortho-phthalates, rattled consumers who rely on the food staple, especially parents. Phthalates make rigid plastic more flexible material and are commonly used in tubing and conveyor belts found at food manufacturing plants and in food packaging.
They can disrupt male hormones like testosterone and have been linked by some researchers to learning problems in children. But the plastics industry has argued that food products have been found to contain relatively small amounts of the chemicals, and food regulators have not ruled that they are dangerous to consumers.
The 2017 study, which was funded by environmental advocacy groups and was not published in a peer-reviewed journal, discovered the chemicals in all 10 of the mac and cheese varieties it tested, though the brands were not identified.
What Took Annie’s So Long?
My first question is: What took Annie’s so long to make this pledge? Going on four years?? Especially as if you go to the company website, you’ll be treated to an extended serenade about the goodness of its packaged foods, including the mac and cheese. From the company’s mission statement
We’re on a mission to cultivate a healthier, happier world by spreading goodness through nourishing foods, honest words and conduct that is considerate and forever kind to the planet.
Here’s Annies latest update on phthalates, from the Frequently Asked Questions section of its website:
Does Annie’s mac and cheese contain phthalates?
Food integrity and consumer trust are our top priorities at Annie’s. We are troubled by the recent report of phthalates found in dairy ingredients of macaroni and cheese and take this issue seriously. While the FDA has not yet adopted a threshold for levels of phthalates in food, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has published risk assessment data which notes a Total Daily Intake of 0.05 mg/kg of body weight. Our mac and cheese products have been tested and we know any trace of phthalates are below the EFSA standard. We are also reviewing available scientific research on the issue to ensure we are informed about the most current evidence related to phthalates and food. Phthalates are chemicals that are widely used to make plastics more pliable and can be found in anything from farm equipment to conveyor belts and packaging ink. Their presence in the supply chain is a widespread and complex issue that affects products well beyond the food industry. Annie’s remains committed to sourcing high-quality organic ingredients and ensuring our food is handled in the safest way possible. We continue to work with our trusted suppliers to eliminate ortho-phthalates that may be present in the packaging materials and food processing equipment that produces the cheese and cheese powder in our macaroni and cheese. We are also working closely with our industry partners including the Organic Trade Association and The Organic Center to better understand this emerging issue and determine how Annie’s can be part of the solution.
The Task Isn’t Easy
Now the NYT devotes some space to discussing how difficult it is to purge phthalates from modern food processing. And an aside: I appreciate that phthalates are not themselves plastic, but rather chemicals used to make plastics flexible. Yet they are pushed or manufactured by some of the same companies that make a killing from feeding our plastics addiction. The Grey Lady recognizes there is a much broader point here, extending beyond the narrow macaroni and cheese example, to implicate broader concerns over integrity of processed food supplies:
The chemicals could enter the food in many places along the supply chain, including at the farm, where flexible plastic tubes carry milk from the barn, or in the making of the cardboard container that holds the noodles. The chemicals tend to collect in foods with a high fat content, such as cheese.
Committing to purge phthalates from the manufacturing of one food type raises questions about the chemical content of the myriad other products made with similar flexible plastic equipment.
The NYT turns to Defend Our Health, a public interest group, to make the anti-phthalate case:
“People shouldn’t have to eat chemicals in their food when it could make them sick, especially where there are safer alternatives,” said Mike Belliveau, the executive director of Defend Our Health, an environmental and health advocacy group focused on the dangers of phthalates.
Mr. Belliveau’s group, which formerly called itself the Environmental Health Strategy Center, helped fund the study in 2017 that revealed the existence of the chemicals in the food. Since then, he has reached out to giant food companies such as General Mills and Kraft about phthalates. Only General Mills opened a discussion with his group about phasing out the chemicals from its supply chain, he said. (Kraft did not respond to a request for comment for this article.)
Readers might also find this Belliveau presentation useful, U.S. State and Market Leadership on Food Contact Chemicals, as well as the organization’s website,
The Usual Suspects
This follows a well-known David and Goliath pattern, with a familiar corporate villain on the pro-phthalate side, using usual tricks, including the hackneyed charge of ‘bad science’. Over to the NYT:
Phthalates have powerful defenders, including Exxon Mobil, a leading producer of the chemical. The chemical industry dismisses some of the studies into phthalates in food as “bad science” designed to generate alarmist headlines but not grounded by rigorous research.
No for Toys, But Okay for Food
What I found most shocking is that phthalates have been phased out of the manufacture of children’s toys, so that even industry spokesman Kevin Ott, the executive director of the Flexible Vinyl Alliance, a trade group the NYT identified as including Exxon, conceded no one makes toys that contain phthalates. Per the NYT:
In 2008, Congress restricted many phthalates from use in children’s toys and directed the Consumer Product Safety Commission to study the effects of several other phthalates.
Today, after all the scrutiny, “phthalates have been basically phased out of toys,” Mr. Ott said. “No astute business person is going to make toys with phthalates.”
Alas, the same cannot be said about food. The Grey Lady again:
Food is a different story. The Food and Drug Administration has studied the presence of phthalates in food packaging and manufacturing equipment. In a paper published in 2018, a group of the agency’s researchers concluded, “There have been no studies to date which show any connection between human dietary exposure to phthalates and adverse health effects.”
The NYT notes that to date, the agency hasn’t ruled on the issue. Yet to do nothing is very much to take a position. According to the NYT:
“Phthalates are coming into our body through our skin, through our nose — we get them from everywhere,” said Shanna Swan, a professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai who has studied the chemical’s effect on reproductive health. “But the primary source is food.”
Surely phthalates in food are overdue for the degree of scrutiny that more than a decade ago saw their presence eliminated from children’s toys?
The FDA Awakens?
The FDA is finally on the case, according to the NYT:
In a statement, an F.D.A. spokeswoman said the agency was currently reviewing two petitions, including one filed by several environmental groups five years ago that asks regulators to restrict phthalates from “food contact” materials.
“Completing our review of these petitions and publishing our response in the Federal Register is a priority for the F.D.A.,” the agency said on Friday.
The Bottom Line
Aside from the state of Maine banning most use of phthalates in packaging, beginning in 2022, until the FDA stops its dithering, pledges such as this made by Annie’s, as well as other companies, no matter how vague, weak, or long-dated, are the best we’ve got. As the NYT summarizes:
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 U.S.A., which operates grocery chains such as Stop & Shop and Hannafords, announced a “sustainable chemistry commitment” to restrict phthalates in its private label products.
However difficult they might be define and implement, pledges such as Annie’s are a far better use of corporate resources than the launch of rosy-hued macaroni and cheese.
And with far, far more than mere market share potentially at stake. Over to the NYT for the last word:
In a book being published this month, “Count Down,” Dr. Swan argues that a range of chemicals have contributed to a 50 percent decline in sperm counts over the past 40 years and that exposure to certain phthalates may be playing a role in reproductive problems.