As the hunt for PFAS contamination has expanded into crops and livestock, it has revealed new food safety concerns related to the limited state-led testing system and lax federal standards.
PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, were the key ingredient in Scotchgard, for example, and have been used for many different consumer and industrial applications including fabrics and carpeting, cleaning products, paints and fire-fighting foams.
The widespread use of PFAS in the second half of the 20th century and the chemical’s stability have led to persistent groundwater and soil contamination in affected areas. Moreover, the chemicals bioaccumulate as they move up the food chain into humans and animals.
“The science is still emerging on this,” said Laura Campbell, manager of the agricultural ecology department for Michigan Farm Bureau. “There is a lot of research being done at MSU on how much different crops actually take up PFAS chemicals into their plant tissues. They’re in the beginning stages of figuring out how much could then be passed on to a person eating that food.”
Campbell told MiBiz she receives recent PFAS testing information from the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) and then passes it on to farmers who are concerned not only about their livelihoods but also because they live in the communities where they grow crops or raise livestock.
“MPART has been doing a really good job at communicating what they’re doing and what they’re finding,” she said. “So far, we don’t seem to be seeing a lot of impact on farm fields out in the countryside.”
MPART, which was formed in 2017, has mainly focused on PFAS testing and treatment of drinking water and groundwater, fish and wildlife. To date, MPART has tested all municipal water supplies in the state, plus private wells, lakes, streams, and land sites in known affected areas. High concentrations of PFAS contamination have been found at two drinking water sites, several lakes and streams, and seven wastewater treatment plants.
“It’s sort of slowly being found and we definitely haven’t found every part of our state that is contaminated,” Campbell said. “That’s across the country, too. Michigan is doing a really great job of being first to take initiative on the PFAS contamination problem.”
PFAS testing in food supplies has lagged significantly behind water testing on both the state and national levels.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been working to develop new methods to quantify certain PFAS chemicals in foods, according to a statement from the organization. At a national level, the FDA has used these methods to test foods coming from specific geographic areas with known PFAS contamination, including recent examples of dairy products from certain farms in New Mexico and produce from North Carolina.
In the case of one dairy farm in New Mexico, milk samples were determined by the FDA to be a potential health concern.
“When you get (PFAS) into your system, it’s not just a matter of you got a little bit and you’re going to pass it right back out,” Campbell said. “If you get a little bit and then you get a little bit more and then you get a little bit more, it then starts to become a higher level. In that (New Mexico) case, they were observing that PFAS chemicals were making it through into the cattle’s milk and they made the decision to start dumping that milk rather than send it off into the market.”
Over the last year, the FDA expanded testing to analyze for PFAS in a diverse sample of popular foods not associated with specific contamination areas. In the first test, researchers detected PFAS chemicals in 14 out of 91 samples that included meat, poultry, leafy greens, pineapples and chocolate cakes.
The levels in nearly half of the meat and fish tested were two or more times over the only existing federal advisory level for PFAS, which it set for drinking water. Oddly, the level in the chocolate cake was even higher: 17,640 parts per trillion (ppt), which is more than 250 times the drinking water federal guidelines of 70 ppt.
Who should lead?
As national examinations of the chemicals slowly move forward, Michigan has pioneered some forms of PFAS measurement. That has left farmers cautious of the effects that even small levels of PFAS contamination could have on public perception, according to Campbell.
“They don’t want to be the person who spreads contamination, but just given the fact that we’re not finding it in very many locations, those other concerns come to the fore,” she said. “They say ‘What if we can’t sell our products because companies become afraid of buying stuff from Michigan since we’re the only state that’s actually out there doing stuff and out there testing?’”
In June, Kay Fritz, a toxicologist with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), told an audience at the National PFAS Conference in Boston that the statewide organization is holding back from testing for possible contamination because it is leery of hurting businesses, according to video of the presentation posted online. The agency cited the case of the dairy farm in New Mexico as part of its justification.
Initial testing at one Allegan County dairy farm found PFAS in hay and pond water, but the investigation stopped short of testing the cows or milk because testers “weren’t going to go there,” Fritz said in the video.
In a statement sent to MiBiz that same month, Kevin Besey, public health project specialist for MDARD, said the organization recognizes that “previous studies have suggested that PFAS can be found in the food supplies of most countries, but not at harmful levels overall.”
“On occasion, any samples with high levels of PFAS found during testing could indicate food from a contaminated source that would need further investigation,” he said.
MDARD continues to have an active role in the state’s “overarching PFAS response,” according to Besey.
Since PFAS contamination has become an emerging nationwide problem, most statewide organizations have been vocal about their desire for the federal government to take the lead on developing standardized testing and evaluating contamination levels.
“The state is going out there looking at farm fields, they’re doing testing and they’re collecting information on whether or not there might be sites that have contamination of PFAS chemicals,” Campbell said. “But we’re kind of building the plane while we’re flying it. We don’t really know if this is the best way to do it.”
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