Plastics Watch: Annie’s Homegrown Vows to Eliminate Ortho-Phthalates from Its Mac and Cheese

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.

I’ll bet.

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.

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15 comments

  1. roxan

    phthalates are in everything– the plastic or tin foil wrapping on cheese and bu/er, the plastic juice and milk bottles. Even if you buy milk in glass bottles, it’s in the industrial detergent used to waah them.

    Reply
    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Glass containers of many kinds receive a thin coating of plastic:
      “Glass containers such as nonreturnable and returnable bottles, conventional, and light-weight are coated by CVD and spray processes with various metallic oxides such as tin oxide, and are given topcoats such as nontoxic silicones, various waxes, and glycols.”
      Among other things these coatings contribute to the luster and ease of cleaning glass containers. “Coatings on Glass”, H.K. Pulker, from appendix to Chapter 9, https://www.sciencedirect.com/book/9780444501035/coatings-on-glass ]

      Reply
  2. Michael Ismoe

    Damn, that’s bad news. I just planted a bumper crop of ortho-phthalates so that Annie’s could mix them inside their “all natural – organic” mac and cheese.

    Reply
    1. ambrit

      I blame it all on those predatory “crypto-phthalate” miners.
      I wonder if this will give a boost to ‘Bit-food?’
      Anyone know of a sub-redd on 4SquareChan dedicated to “organic food?”

      It may be prey to “humour” mongers of all and sundry, but I’m from one of the generations that has grown up on “processed food.”
      Rachel Carson is being ‘canonized’ as we watch.
      Carson: https://www.rachelcarson.org/

      Reply
  3. Jason

    Annie’s is owned by General Mills. Read its history. It hasn’t been “organic”* for a long time, if it ever was. It’s always been about the business side more than anything else. Investors, investors, investors. There is a real Annie. Everything else is marketing.

    * I am one who believes there is a lot more to “organic” than simply the end product.

    Reply
    1. Katy

      I once read an article in Twin Cities Business Magazine that interviewed some senior VP of General Mills. The author asked the VP what she usually ate. The VP said she mostly eats paleo.

      I couldn’t tell whether the VP or the author understood the irony.

      Reply
  4. Mel

    I see from Wikipedia that eliminating ortho-phthalates means that it’s forbidden to re-use any plastics produced up to now, because of the ortho-phthalates that are doubtless in them.
    We have to invent a genuine plastic-recycling industry, that works in detail with the chemistry. Industrial policy, anyone?

    Reply
  5. Rod

    Very Interesting. I drink a lot of milk and eat a lot of cheese.

    I grew up surrounded by small Appalacian Ohio Dairy Farms and worked on a number in Middle and HS, eventually working my way into the Milking Parlor from the fields.
    It was a big deal when my employer went from hand milking to 5 Pneumatic Milkers, and remember the conversation and cost of the Glass Piping and Collection System he had to contract to install (because it was Sanitary Glass) from the Parlor to Milk Room because the State of Ohio said no more pails and had to be glass.

    Glass being inert, bleach cleanable, transparent for inspection, and all.
    So this surprised me:

    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,

    So I looked and this is the 2017 Regs:

    https://www.fda.gov/media/114169/download

    ITEM 10p. SANITARY PIPING
    All sanitary piping, fittings and connections which are exposed to milk and milk products or
    from which liquids may drip, drain or be drawn into milk and milk products shall consist of
    smooth, impervious, corrosion-resistant, non-toxic, easily cleanable material, which is approved
    for milk product-contact surfaces. All piping shall be in good repair. Pasteurized milk and milk
    products shall be conducted from one piece of equipment to another only through sanitary
    piping

    followed by:

    ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEDURES
    This Item is deemed to be satisfied when:
    1. All sanitary piping, fittings and connections, which are exposed to milk or milk products or
    from which liquids may drip, drain or be drawn into milk or milk products, consist of smooth,
    impervious, corrosion-resistant, non-toxic, easily cleanable material.
    2. All sanitary piping, connections and fittings consist of:
    a. Stainless steel of the AISI 300 series; or
    b. Equally corrosion-resistant metal which is non-toxic and nonabsorbent; or
    c. Heat resistant glass; or
    d. Plastic, or rubber and rubber-like materials which are relatively inert, resistant to
    scratching, scoring, decomposition, crazing, chipping and distortion under normal use
    conditions; are non-toxic, fat resistant, relatively nonabsorbent; which do not impart flavor or
    odor to the milk or milk product; and which maintain their original properties under repeated
    use conditions,
    may be used for gaskets, sealing applications and for short flexible takedown
    jumpers or connections where flexibility is required for essential or functional reasons.
    3. Sanitary piping, fittings and connections are designed to permit easy cleaning; kept in good
    repair; free of breaks or corrosion; and contain no dead ends of piping in which milk or milk
    product may collect.
    4. All interior surfaces of demountable piping, including valves, fittings and connections are
    designed, constructed and installed to permit inspection and drainage.
    5. All CIP cleaned milk pipelines and return-solution lines are rigid, self-draining and so
    supported to maintain uniform slope and alignment.
    Return solution lines shall be constructed of
    material meeting the specifications of Item 2 above. If gaskets are used, they shall be selfpositioning, of material meeting the specifications outlined in Item 2 above and designed,
    finished and applied to form a smooth, flush interior surface. If gaskets are not used, all fittings
    shall have self-positioning faces designed to form a smooth, flush interior surface. All interior
    surfaces of welded joints in pipelines shall be smooth and free from pits, cracks or inclusions.
    In the case of welded lines, all welds shall be inspected as they are made and such welds shall be
    approved by the Regulatory Agency.
    Each cleaning circuit shall have access points for inspection in addition to the entrances and
    exits. These may be valves, removable sections, fittings or other means or combinations that are
    adequate for the inspection of the interior of the line. These access points shall be located at
    sufficient intervals to determine the general condition of the interior surfaces of the pipeline.
    Detailed plans for welded pipeline systems shall be submitted to the Regulatory Agency for
    written approval prior to installation. No alteration or addition shall be made to any welded milk
    pipeline system without prior written approval from the Regulatory Agency.
    6. Pasteurized milk and milk products are conducted from one piece of equipment to another
    only through sanitary milk piping.
    7. For milk plants that dry milk or milk products, because of the high pressure required to
    obtain proper dispersal of the product in the drying chamber, the pipeline between the highpressure pump and the dryer nozzle may be connected with pressure-tight threaded fittings, or
    may be welded.

    Haven’t been a milking parlor in decades, but do not see how Plastic got in there.
    Lot of Safety stuff–because it is Food Humans eat to stay Healthy and not get sick.
    my bolding

    Reply
  6. Jeremy Grimm

    Banning BPAs resulted in their replacement: “Bisphenol F (BPF), Bisphenol S (BPS), and Bisphenol AF (BPAF) are among the main substitutes of BPA in polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins …”
    “In conclusion, BPA alternatives are not necessarily less estrogenic than BPA in human breast cancer cells. BPAF, BPB, and BPZ were more estrogenic than BPA. These findings point to the importance of better understanding the risk of adverse effects from exposure to BPA alternatives, including hormone-dependent breast cancer.”
    [“Editor’s Highlight: Transcriptome Profiling Reveals Bisphenol A Alternatives Activate Estrogen Receptor Alpha in Human Breast Cancer Cells”, https://academic.oup.com/toxsci/article/158/2/431/3849675 ]
    I do not advocate against banning ortho-phthalates. I think the lesson from banning BPA is that when ortho-phthalates are banned there must also be careful proof that their replacements are safe. Otherwise it provides a driver for boosting container sales as old containers are dumped and new and improved BPA-free containers are purchased to replace them … and I do not recall seeing all that many glass substitutes like old-fashioned glass baby bottles readily available off-the-shelf and without jacked up prices.

    I like mac and cheese and especially like the taste of the contents of the offending cheesy-flavor packs [I had some Annie’s mac and cheese the other night with dinner … tasty but now … ]. While banning ortho-phthalates, I hope someone finds ways to produce a jar of chemically safe dried cheesy flavorings I can keep on the shelf and add to the pasta I keep around my pantry — I like bow-ties and spirelli to replace shells or elbows. Supermarket cheeses and yogurts do not keep very well compared with the cheesy flavor packets. Romano and Parmesan cheeses are very good but need a little additional tang. Perhaps freeze-dried buttermilk? I may just shift to my standby for summer noodles — fermented black-bean paste from the Korean market.

    While we worry about ortho-phthalates, we should remember a much larger problem to worry about — the Corporate capture of the FDA and the FDAs diminishing funding and compliance checking of foods and of drugs — especially generics foreign and domestic.

    Reply
  7. The Rev Kev

    It’s going to be tough to get rid of phthalates as their use goes back to the 1920s which is far earlier than I would have expected. But the stuff is used everywhere including foods, cosmetics, shampoo, skin moisturizers, personal care products, carpet, upholstery, wood finishes, etc. A safety sheet says that ‘Nearly all Americans have phthalate byproducts in their urine’, so extensive is their use-

    https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/features/what-are-phthalates

    Reply
    1. Sue inSoCal

      Too true. Iirc, the first time I read about pthalates was about their use in laundry products. I stopped using commercial laundry products and never broke out in a rash again. In food?! Well, geeze, I shouldn’t be surprised. When your favorite organic product starts looking “slick,” with lots of choices and flavors, odds are they’ve been bought out by a behemoth.

      Werner Boote’s film “Plastic Planet” is enlightening. I’ll try the link:
      https://www.indiewire.com/2011/01/werner-boote-jump-starts-a-revolution-in-plastic-planet-243945/

      Reply

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