Aug 06 2010
Hat tip to Tom Philpott on Grist. On June 25, Kellogg’s announced a “voluntary recall” of 28 million boxes of cereal including Apple Jacks, Fruit Loops, Corn Pops, and Honey Smacks. According to the Kellogg website, the reason for the recall was
a substance in the package liner that can produce an uncharacteristic waxy-like off-taste and smell. The off-tastes and smells are caused by a slightly elevated level of a substance commonly present at very low levels in the waxy resins used to make packaging materials that are approved by the FDA.
Of course, nowhere on the Kellogg’s site is there any mention of what this substance was, or what the effects of ingesting the substance might be. But luckily for us, the folks at the Environmental Working group are pretty tenacious and gotten the information from Kellogg’s
This compound, methylnaphthalene (methyl-NAP-tha-lene), has been the subject of major, on-going government and oil industry testing and information-gathering initiatives to identify potential safety issues and fill basic data gaps, according to an Environmental Working Group (EWG) analysis of the scientific literature. Kellogg’s has not publicly identified the chemical but provided the information to EWG in response to our inquiries. Methylnaphthalene, which has two forms, is a component of crude oil and coal tar and may also be formed “as a pyrolytic byproduct from the combustion of tobacco, wood, petroleum-based fuels and coal” (EPA 2003). The petroleum-based compound is produced in enormous quantities in the United States, and health agencies know very little about its safety, EWG research shows.
Unfortunately very little is known about the effects of low dose exposure to methylnaphthalene.
In 1998, EPA identified the compound as a high production volume (HPV) chemical that lacked basic safety data in the public literature. The agency sought a corporate sponsor to submit such data to EPA’s “HPV Challenge” program. In 1999, a consortium of large petrochemical interests volunteered, including BP, Chevron, Condea Vista, Exxon, Fina Oil, Koch, Marathon Ashland, Mobil Oil, PDV Midwest Refining, Phillips Petroleum, Shell and Sunoco. Eleven years later, however, EPA’s HPV Challenge program website shows no data whatsoever submitted by these companies (EPA 2010).
This incident demonstrates once again, how many safety gaps there are in our food safety system. As Philpott points out
..the FDA has not demanded that the company release the name of the substance that caused the off-smell. These are products marketed specifically to children, complete with cartoon-laden boxes and, despite the recall, there are likely millions of them on countertops across the country, being consumed daily by kids before school. (According to a recent GAO report, companies recover only about 36 percent of targeted products in a typical recall.) Yet the FDA has released no additional information on the dodgy cereal since the June 25 recall.
But at the root of the entire problem is that there are 10′s of thousands of chemicals in use in our daily life, in packaging, in cleansers, in cosmetics, that have simply never been tested for safety. We flat out don’t know if we should be scared, and that is a scary thought.