Toxins: Public health scourge and financial disaster

Testing for heavy metals and other toxins is far cheaper than reformulating your product and convincing the public it’s safe.

Jaclyn Bowen, Executive Director

February 7, 2019

3 Min Read

Here’s my beef: As your friendly, neighborhood food quality and safety systems engineer, I continue to be baffled by the sheer volume of money and brand reputation that goes down the drain due to a lack of strong Quality Assurance (QA) systems.

A comprehensive QA program protects consumers, products and brands from expensive liabilities relating to regulatory and quality lapses. Financial repercussions aside, there are countless other dangers when brands lack strong QA systems to maintain product safety and quality, or they turn a blind eye to potential toxins in their products. On the heels of the Consumer Reports investigation into the levels of heavy metals in America’s favorite childhood juices, as well as the Clean Label Project’s peer-reviewed study into industrial and environmental contaminants in America’s best-selling infant formulas and baby foods, heavy metals are clearly a legal, media and consumer advocacy matter that is not going away.

In a September report, UNICEF said, “In the modern era, while undernutrition remains the major challenge worldwide, we humans are now faced with the negative effects of ‘overnutrition’ in the form of obesity, as well as risk in the form of unbalanced diets or diets contaminated with potential toxins.” The status quo for food safety in America focuses predominantly on short-term microbiological contaminants. Minimizing dietary exposure to known carcinogenic industrial and environmental contaminants has largely not yet made its way into the food safety regulatory fabric in America.

Related:Secret Shopper: How do I know if a product's packaging contains unsafe chemicals?

Except for in California. With regard to toxin awareness, the state of California has set strict regulatory guidelines to protect consumers. In 2017, 688 consumer packaged goods companies were sued under California Proposition 65. If you’re unfamiliar with the California Proposition 65, (also referred to as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxin Enforcement Act of 1986), it was a voter initiative with the goal to protect consumers and water sources from toxic substances that may cause cancer and birth defects by reducing or eliminating exposures in consumer products. The statute requires warnings in advance of those exposures. In the absence of federal law setting maximum dietary exposure tolerance levels for environmental contaminants like heavy metals (such as lead or mercury) or plasticizers with known endocrine disruption properties (such as BPA, BPS or phthalates), the State of California Proposition 65 limits are the default law of the land.

The average settlement from those Prop 65 lawsuits is $37,453. However, this price tag pales in comparison to the additional costs of quality associated with to reformulating and relabeling affected products. In addition, brands suffer the loss of retail and consumer trust by having to explain online or on packaging that “This product may contain chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.” 

In the absence of federal regulatory policy, brands can be proactive in protecting public health, their reputation and their pocketbooks. Heavy metals testing averages a mere $100 per sample. Incorporating maximum contaminant level thresholds into your product specifications and using heavy metals confirmation testing serves as an effective and affordable insurance policy.

For more information about the Clean Label Project and safer products for consumers, contact [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Jaclyn Bowen

Executive Director, Clean Label Project

Jaclyn Bowen is a food safety and quality systems engineer, and executive director of Clean Label Project, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization with the mission to bring truth and transparency to food and consumer product labeling. Previously, she held numerous technical, standards development, food safety, quality and executive roles within the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre, NSF International. Bowen holds masters’ degrees in quality engineering and public health management & policy. Her expertise is in organic, gluten-free, non-GMO labeling, food safety, and label claim substantiation and compliance.

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