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FDA Publicizes Petitions To Remove Four Suspected Cancer-Causing Ingredients in Food

Jan. 19, 2024
The Food and Drug Administration has been asked to rescind approvals for benzene, trichloroethylene, methylene chloride and ethylene dichloride.

The FDA last week forwarded two citizens petitions into the Federal Register that seek to eliminate suspected carcinogens added to decaffeinated coffee, extracts of spices used for taste and color and for other food-related purposes.

Benzene, trichloroethylene, methylene chloride and ethylene dichloride were called out in two petitions -- one a food additive petition and one a color additive petition -- submitted by Environmental Defense Fund, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, Center for Environmental Health, Environmental Working Group (EWG), and Lisa Lefferts, an environmental health consultant.

“FDA has been disregarding the law by permitting these long-established carcinogens to be added to food,” said Maria Doa, senior director for chemicals policy at Environmental Defense Fund. “We hope that recent changes in FDA leadership will fix the agency’s broken system for overseeing chemicals added to the food supply."

“I think most people would be shocked to learn that known human carcinogens like benzene and trichloroethylene are food additives that can legally be added to food,” said Lisa Lefferts, a scientist and coauthor of the petition. “The Food and Drug Administration should have prohibited these uses decades ago.”

The publication in the Federal Register is somewhat perfunctory, but it does indicate the FDA has determined the petitions contain all the basic elements needed to move them forward for a review and possibly a public comment period. Only then might the FDA start its rule-making process to remove them.

“For over 60 years, the law has clearly stated that food and color additives that induce cancer in humans or animals cannot be deemed safe for use in food,” the petitioners said in a news release. “Yet FDA has kept approvals on the books for chemicals that were found to cause cancer decades ago. In fact [the four chemicals] were found to cause cancer in animal studies conducted by FDA’s sister agencies, the National Cancer Institute and the National Toxicology Program, decades ago.”

Their food uses, according to the group, include:

  • Benzene is used in hops extracts (for beer production and supplements).
  • Trichloroethylene is allowed in decaffeinated coffee, certain extracts of spices used for taste and coloring, and hops extracts.
  • Methylene chloride is allowed in decaffeinated coffee, certain extracts of spices used for taste and coloring, in ink used to mark produce, and hops extracts.
  • Ethylene dichloride is found in certain extracts of spices used for taste and coloring, hops extracts and in water used to wash sugar beets – as well as to dilute pesticides.
About the Author

Dave Fusaro | Editor in Chief

Dave Fusaro has served as editor in chief of Food Processing magazine since 2003. Dave has 30 years experience in food & beverage industry journalism and has won several national ASBPE writing awards for his Food Processing stories. Dave has been interviewed on CNN, quoted in national newspapers and he authored a 200-page market research report on the milk industry. Formerly an award-winning newspaper reporter who specialized in business writing, he holds a BA in journalism from Marquette University. Prior to joining Food Processing, Dave was Editor-In-Chief of Dairy Foods and was Managing Editor of Prepared Foods.

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