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Consumer Reports calls out General Mills for plastic chemicals in food

Star Tribune - 2/8/2024

There's plastic in our food, and consumer advocates are tired of waiting for federal regulators to do something about it.

Consumer Reports sent a letter to General Mills this week over relatively high levels of plastic chemicals called phthalates found in several products, including Cheerios, Yoplait, Progresso vegetable soup and cans of Annie's organic cheesy ravioli.

Phthalates are "plasticizers" used in the production of plastic to make them stronger and softer and are commonly used in vinyl flooring, shampoos and plastic packaging. Health impacts in humans need further study, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but scientists have found strong associations between chronic exposure and issues with reproductive systems and child development.

"We hope General Mills will commit to take the necessary steps to reduce the levels of plasticizers in your products," wrote Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports. "Any tolerable daily intake levels that currently exist for certain phthalates do not reflect the most current scientific knowledge and are not adequately protective of public health."

Golden Valley-based General Mills did not respond directly to the Consumer Reports letter but said "food safety is our top priority."

"All our products adhere to regulatory requirements, and we review our ingredients, packaging and suppliers on a regular basis to ensure quality," spokesperson Mollie Wulff said.

The plastic can liner is a likely source for some of the phthalates showing up in food, Ronholm said in an interview, but it can also happen during manufacturing processes.

"It's so systemic to the point of being almost unavoidable," he said. "But what the test data show is it's possible to get low readings. We just tested the food itself, not the packaging."

Different types of phthalates can have different health effects and have various maximum recommended dosing levels. None of the foods tested exceeded established limits, but the worry is that chronic exposure can compound over time and current limits are too high.

"More than half of the products we tested [had] levels above what research has linked to health problems," said a Consumer Reports article on the findings.

Cans of Annie's organic cheesy ravioli had the highest levels of out of all the 85 items — four times the levels found in Chef Boyardee's Beefaroni pasta.

Annie's macaroni and cheese, the brand's most popular item, was not tested.

Last summer the U.S. Food and Drug Administration again declined a citizen petition, first launched in 2016, to ban several types of phthalates, saying the backers did not "adequately justify" their requests.

But the FDA's safety assessment for the chemicals is based on data gathered between 1961 and 1985. The agency admits "the food supply and packaging markets have changed over the years, and the use of phthalates in food contact materials has also evolved."

"The agency remains aware of concerns raised about possible health effects of exposure to high levels of phthalates," and is continuing to study the chemicals, the FDA says on its website. The federal government has banned several types of phthalates from children's toys.

Of the 85 items Consumer Reports tested for the plasticizers, several came from Minnesota companies. Hormel chili with beans had the highest level of phthalates of four brands of canned beans. Land O' Lakes butter had the lowest levels of the chemicals out of a dozen dairy products tested.

Hormel-owned Applegate Naturals had turkey breast show low levels of phthalates relative to other meats wrapped in plastic, while Green Giant creamed corn — plenty of which is grown and packed in Minnesota — had higher levels compared to other canned veggies.

Ronholm said the items chosen for testing were based on data already available and the impact findings could have.

"The organic label isn't going to shield you from exposure," he said. "It requires some effort on consumers' part to get plastic packaging off as soon as possible and target brands that have lower levels."

Ronholm said consumers can try to minimize phthalate exposure by eating mostly fresh food and avoiding plastic food containers and utensils. PVC plastics, which carry the #3 recycling symbol, are most likely to contain phthalates.

Food manufacturers can still lead on the issue while regulation is stalled, he said.

"I would hope General Mills undertakes a thorough review, and others follow suit."

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