When Kellogg Co. pulled about 28 million cereal boxes from store shelves last month, the company said only that an "off-flavor and smell" coming from the packaging could cause nausea and diarrhea. But the culprit behind the recall is a class of chemicals now making news in the Gulf of Mexico: hydrocarbons, a byproduct of oil.
The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) reported yesterday that the hydrocarbon methylnaphthalene, which the government has yet to evaluate for human carcinogenicity, was behind the recall. For EWG and other public-health advocacy groups, the appearance of a chemical missing consistent risk data in popular products such as Apple Jacks strengthens the case for food safety reform -- an issue that remains stalled in the Senate.
"There are potentially many thousands of chemicals that could leach out of these materials into our food," said Jane Houlihan, EWG's vice president for research. "In this case, methylnaphthalene and other hydrocarbons are what Kellogg's is saying publicly about what ended up in their cereal. They need to be more forthcoming about what exactly they found."
A food-safety bill passed by the House one year ago this month gives the Food and Drug Administration power to order mandatory recalls, rather than voluntary efforts such as the one initiated with Kellogg. But that legislation sits in limbo in the upper chamber as industry groups chafe at Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-Calif.) bid to ban another chemical with an unclear safety history, bisphenol A, from food containers.
Sarah Klein, an attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the mandatory recall provisions in the pending food-safety measure would provide greater consumer protections in the case of packaging hazards such as the Kellogg case.
But, she added, "in this particular instance, it's clear that FDA needs to take a closer look at the packaging of consumer products and this chemical that's been identified as a problem."
Kellogg consulted independent toxicologists and chemists before pinpointing "elevated levels of hydrocarbons, including methylnaphthalene," as the source of the smell and flavor defects in the cereal, company spokesman J. Adaire Putnam said via e-mail.
The paraffin wax at issue in the June 25 recall is FDA approved and "commonly used as a protective coating for foods including cheese, raw fruits and vegetables," he added. "We have verified that the elevated levels of hydrocarbons are not present at harmful levels. We are working with our supplier to ensure that this situation does not happen again."
Putnam declined to name the other hydrocarbons found in the cereal boxes and to state whether the company would back EWG's call for increased FDA testing of food packaging.
Scott Openshaw, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, declined to comment on the specifics of the Kellogg case but affirmed the food industry's support for packaging safety. "We take that responsibility very seriously," Openshaw said in an e-mail. "Food and beverage companies all adhere to strict manufacturing practices to assure that food packaging is safe."
Agencies cite lack of data
In its report, EWG noted that U.S. EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have both cited a lack of data in declining to rule on the human carcinogenicity of methylnaphthalene.
EWG also played up the contrast between a Kellogg statement that the substances prompting the recall are frequently used in food packaging and a 2005 ATSDR conclusion that "you are not likely to be exposed to [methylnaphthalene] by eating foods or drinking beverages."
The advocacy group urged Kellogg to release its third-party testing of the recalled cereal boxes and recommended stricter food safety laws, though it did not directly call for Senate passage of the food-safety legislation.
One House Democrat, however, linked the Kellogg case to the pending bill in the immediate wake of the cereal recall. "When foods that are popular among kids are being recalled in large volumes, it is clear that our food safety system is not working," Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut said in a statement last month.