For the first time, new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines expected this month would set limits on safe exposure of US citizens to the environmental pollutants.
Concerns – among food manufacturers, farmers, suppliers and restaurants – centre on the possibility of the EPA setting dioxin safety limits below the amount consumers usually get from food.
According to 2010 data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) excess exposure to such chemically related compounds is linked to immune system damage, interference with hormones and an increased cancer risk.
The chemicals stem from industrial processes (as an unwanted byproduct), but can also enter the food chain (mainly via meat and dairy products, fish and shellfish) due to natural processes such as volcanic eruptions and forest fires, the WHO said.
A ‘Food Industry Dioxin Working Group’, comprising trade bodies such as the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI) and National Chicken Council (NCC) is lobbying the US government to put the brakes on any changes.
In a December letter to (now outgoing) White House Domestic Policy Council (DPC) director, Melody Barnes, the group expressed its “deep concern” over the EPA’s efforts to finalise a draft dioxin risk reassessment.
“This action is taking place without any agency outreach to the food industry or other key stakeholders and who could suffer harm if the EPA proposal is implemented,” the group wrote.
EPA under attack
Questioning the EPA process for “inaccuracy, questionable methodologies and inadequate scientific evidence”, the signatories also slammed the body for its failure to consult industry and other federal bodies.
Proposed revisions to the standard would set a dioxin exposure threshold lower than any government entity in the world, including the European Union (EU).
The World Health Organisation (WHO) and EU agree that average dioxin daily exposures should be limited to 1-4 ppg.kg.day (2.3 pg/kg/day on average) based on non-cancer risk.
But the EPA was seeking to set a non-cancer reference dose (RFD) of 0.7 pg/kg/day, “a level so low it strains credibility” the group said.
The industry grouping said it was also especially concerned by an EPA plan to undertake ‘cancer’ and ‘non-cancer’ risk assessments, and set a reference dose (RFD) for non-cancer risk.
“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 US food producers.”
Fear of media witch-hunt
Moreover, exposure standards calculated over long periods meant consumers would be unable to calculate daily intake levels accurately to remain below the RFD, the group said.
It added: “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.”
The EPA’s action would lead to a situation where most US agricultural products could arbitrarily be classified as unfit for consumption, the group said, without evidence of further health protection.
As a result, it urged Barnes’ intervention to ensure interagency and stakeholder consultation on the EPA’s dioxin risk strategy.
However, any reaction from the DPC is likely to be led by Barnes’ successor, since she is due to leave office this week, according to the Associated Press (AP).