US: PFAS found in certified organic food – challenges to the organic food industry

 Four out of 17 certified organic pasta sauce products tested positive for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). According to organic food expert, Max Goldberg from Organic Insider, the presence of PFAS in organic products poses a great challenge to the organic industry, creating “tremendous unease and a lack of trust among consumers”.  

Mamavation, an organization dedicated to eco-wellness, has recently published a report on its investigation into PFAS contamination in food products. The organization sent 55 store-bought tomato and pasta sauce products to an EPA-certified laboratory to test the presence of PFAS. 17 of the samples are organic-certified, and four of them are contaminated with PFAS.  

Goldberg considers PFAS would create a great challenge for the organic industry, in terms of identifying sources of contamination, eradicating them, as well as explaining PFAS contamination to consumers, who expect chemical-free food for the premium prices they are paying.  

Because PFAS persist and are easily transported in the environment, it is complicated to determine the exact source of the PFAS contamination. In Maine and many other states in the US, it is widely believed that one of the main sources is biosolids — or sewage sludge — which have been used as fertilizers on farms. In addition, PFAS are present in air and water, yet testing these three sources is not sufficient. PFAS sources can also be processing equipment or contaminated spices.  

According to Max Goldberg, there is no easy solution to eradicating quickly PFAS, particularly when it comes to the soil on organic farms. PFAS can be degraded using certain microbial strains in combination with humate and biochar. However, the process requires time and largely relies on how much effort is put into the solution.  

Nevertheless, Goldberg believes that organic food companies would not need to worry that the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program will ban or create maximum PFAS limits for organic products since the agency has not done it with glyphosate either.  

Thus, it is organic food companies who decide if they want to test for this class of chemicals. But testing is a challenge on its own. “There is so much testing but not all of the testing gives you the answers you want, and brands do not know how to find it in the supply chain. Plus, there is a lot of plastic in the industry that doesn’t say it is fluorinated,” according to Mamavation.  

PFAS - per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances - are a large class of thousands of synthetic chemicals that are widely used in many different products, such as food packaging, non-stick pans, paper plates, clothing, etc. PFAS pose great concerns to human health and the environment because of its high resistance to degradation, meaning that humans are exposed to a greater concentration of PFAS. Studies have shown the hazardous effects of PFAS on human health, including causing multiple types of cancer, endocrine disruption, and damaging the reproduction system.