Food Industry Prepares for a Tough Report on Dioxins From the EPA

After nearly 30 years, the EPA could finally put a limit on the amount of these cancer-causing chemicals we should be exposed to every day.

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The food and chemical industries are lobbying hard against what is expected to be a tough report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The report will set an upper limit for safe consumption of dioxins.

Most Americans consume dioxins at levels higher than this standard, mostly from food. About 90 percent of dioxins come from foods, particularly high-fat animal foods.

Dioxins mainly enter the food chain as by-products of industrial processes. To a lesser extent, they also come from natural processes such as volcanoes and forest fires. They contaminate land and sea, are consumed in feed, move up the food chain, and end up in the fatty parts of meat, dairy products, and seafood.

Dioxins accumulate in fatty tissues. They increase the risk of human cancer more than any other industrial chemical.

The EPA is expected to recommend an intake limit of 0.7 picograms of dioxin per kilogram body weight per day. A picogram is one trillionth of a gram. The World Health Organization and European Union limit is higher -- from one to four picograms per kilogram per day.

The food and chemical industries argue that the proposed EPA limit is too low.

The EPA thinks less is better. Dioxins are toxic and Americans typically consume amounts within the European range. A single hot dog can contain more dioxin than the proposed limit for a two-year-old.

Dioxin levels in the United States have been declining for the last 30 years due to reductions in man-made sources. But they break down slowly and persist for a long time in the environment.

How to avoid them? The best way is to eat less high-fat meats, dairy foods, and seafood.

No wonder the food industry is alarmed.

A "Food Industry Dioxin Working Group" of trade associations such as the International Dairy Foods Association, the American Frozen Food Institute, and the National Chicken Council wrote to the White House:

Under EPA's proposal ... nearly every American -- particularly young children -- could easily exceed the daily RfD [reference dose] after consuming a single meal or heavy snack.... The implications of this action are chilling.

Since the agency contends the primary route of human exposure to dioxin is through food, this could not only mislead and frighten consumers about the safety of their diets, but could have a significant negative economic impact on all U.S. food producers.

These groups singled out the media for particular blame:

The media will inevitably report on this change and in all likelihood misinterpret the RfD as a 'safe limit.' As a result, consumers may try to avoid any foods 'identified' as containing or likely to contain any dioxin.

Eat more fruits and vegetables anyone?

Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) is urging the EPA to get busy and release its report:

The American public has been waiting for the completion of this dioxin study since 1985 and cannot afford any further delays.... A baby born on the day the EPA completed its first draft health assessment would be 27 years old today. I'd like to see the final EPA analysis before it turns 28.

Let's hope the EPA does not cave in to industry pressure and releases the report this month as promised.

TECHNICAL NOTE: "Dioxins" collectively refers to hundreds of chemical compounds that share certain structures and biological characteristics. They fall into three closely related groups: the chlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (CDDs), chlorinated dibenzofurans (CDFs), and certain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The most studied is 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD). PCBs are no longer produced in the U.S.

REFERENCES:

Image: Fedor Kondratenko/Shutterstock.

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This post also appears on Food Politics, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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