New retailer ranking on safer chemicals reveals major gaps between leaders and laggards

On Monday, the Mind the Store campaign released their second annual review of retailer action on toxic chemicals: Who’s Minding the Store? – A Report Card on Retailer Actions to Eliminate Toxic Chemicals. The report card evaluates 30 retailers across a variety of product sectors, including cosmetics, electronics, baby products, and grocery. How are retailers doing? Let’s take a closer look.

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Why businesses and state governments aren’t waiting for federal action on chemicals transparency

As a Trump Administration appointee tries to dismantle EPA’s credibility as a guardian of public health and the environment, other actors have been stepping up. We recently examined retailers leading the way on removing chemicals of concern from the marketplace – but there has also been significant activity from state governments and companies to increase transparency about the chemicals we are exposed to every day and to empower consumers to make informed decisions about their product purchases.

Regulatory steps in the right direction

Government activity has recently focused on cleaning products, for good reason as the contents of these products are typically the biggest mystery for consumers.

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Walmart makes bold new commitments around safer products

Credit: Flickr user Mike Mozart

Today, Walmart updated their ambitious Sustainable Chemistry Policy on Consumables, which to-date has resulted in a 96% reduction in the weight of High Priority Chemicals. The new commitments set a bold goal of reducing Walmart’s chemicals footprint by 10% – over 55 million pounds of priority chemicals – a historic move.

Reducing chemicals of concern from products is a major interest for consumers. Modern science increasingly shows that certain chemicals prevalent in products can impact our health. Walmart’s renewed commitment to drive safer products onto store shelves is a laudable effort. Read more

No one-hit wonder: Walmart reinforces its commitment to safer chemicals

Walmart made two big moves last week to reinforce its commitment to leadership on safer chemicals. In 2013 Walmart sent a major demand signal for safer chemicals through the supply chain – issuing its Sustainable Chemistry Policy that covered 700 suppliers and over 90,000 cleaning, personal care, and cosmetics products on its shelves. The policy called for greater ingredient transparency and the reduction and elimination of chemicals harmful to human and environmental health, starting with eight prevalent chemicals of concern. Last week, Walmart released its latest results following up on these commitments and became the first retailer to participate in the Chemical Footprint Project annual survey (and the second major retailer to become a CFP signatory).

Walmart’s participation in the Chemical Footprint Project is a new indicator of its continued commitment to safer products

The Chemical Footprint Project is an initiative to benchmark how effectively companies are managing the chemicals in their products and supply chains. As I mentioned in a previous blog, it’s a way for investors and large purchasers to assess which firms are carrying heavy chemical risk and which ones are demonstrating competitive leadership in response to growing demand for safer products. So far, 24 companies, including Walmart, participate in this program – sending a clear signal to their suppliers, investors, and consumers that chemicals management is material to business success. Leaders identified in the CFP survey show that adopting and enforcing policies and measuring progress are key to reducing chemicals of concern.

Progress on its ground-breaking policy

Also last week, Walmart quietly released its second annual Sustainable Chemistry Policy report, showing progress on its policy to eliminate priority chemicals. The chemicals of concern were drawn from 16 reputable regulatory and other authoritative lists – starting with eight High Priority Chemicals.

Table 1: Walmart's High Priority Chemicals


A chemical inventory is the first step in meeting a commitment to reduce your chemical footprint

Before jumping into the results, let's review why this public disclosure of results is important. If you can't measure something, you can't improve it effectively. Walmart’s public reporting of quantitative data shows that it is serious about measuring its chemical footprint and being transparent about it. Walmart uses aggregate chemical inventory information across and within the departments under the policy to track progress.

Clear, meaningful metrics to track progress are the next step

Walmart tracks progress by looking at both weight volume – pounds of chemicals going out the door – and ubiquity – number of suppliers using these chemicals and the number of products in which they are using them. Both are important indicators of the prevalence of these chemicals in our world. Last year, Walmart achieved a 95% reduction in its High Priority Chemicals (HPCs) at Walmart US stores, equivalent to 23 million lbs. Since then, another 372,230 lbs have been removed – a 30% drop compared to the 2015 weight volume and a 96% drop since the policy began in 2014. Similar reductions continue to happen at Walmart's Sam's Club stores:  another 75,629 lbs have been eliminated, a 53% drop compared to the 2015 weight volume and a 68% drop compared to 2014. The second year results also reaffirm that a concerted effort to reduce a select set of priority chemicals, i.e. HPCs, drives results faster. Overall usage of Walmart Priority Chemicals continues to decrease (at Walmart US stores), but not nearly at the rate of that of Walmart HPCs.

Figure 1: The cumulative weight volume reduction of High Priority Chemicals since 2014 has been over 23.6 million lbs and over 164,000 lbs for Walmart and Sam’s Club respectively.

Walmart’s public disclosure also shows that the company isn’t afraid to share where performance is lagging

Though overall weight volume of the HPCs continues to drop, their ubiquity continues to be a challenge. Both the number of products (i.e. UPCs) containing the HPCs and the number of suppliers using them continues to drop, at both Walmart US and Sam’s Club stores, but at a rate slower than the weight volume reduction.

Figure 2: Current percent of products (or UPCs) containing and suppliers who using High Priority Chemicals in products, along with the respective percentage point changes since 2014.

The tools for success

In the end, Walmart continues to make progress against its policy as demonstrated through real data. Beyond data, what else contributes to Walmart‘s success?

  • Clear targets
  • Driving action through the business (where relationships between buyers and suppliers stress the importance of the commitments)
  • Public accountability

With new notable commitments popping up from other major retailers like Target and CVS, we hope to see similar tracking and reporting of meaningful results both directly and through the Chemical Footprint Project survey.

FURTHER READING: See EDF’s previous analysis of Walmart’s first year results here and here.


Boma Brown-West is Senior Manager of Consumer Health at EDF + Business. You can follow her on Twitter for insights and analysis on safer chemicals leadership in the supply chain and subscribe to her Behind the Label newsletter here.

Companies can and should do more to eliminate lead in food – our kids’ health depends on it

As a parent, environmental professional and wife of an accomplished chef, I spend a lot of time thinking about food and how to make the best choices when it comes to feeding my family. That’s why EDF’s report detailing lead in food has me so concerned.

Usually I think about, and maybe even felt guilty at times, about the nutritional content and environmental impacts of the food I choose, but it never occurred to me to worry that the food itself could be contaminated with lead.  And, let’s just be clear – there is no scientific evidence of a safe level of lead in blood. Lead can harm a child’s developing brain, potentially leading to learning problems, lower IQ, as well as cause behavioral problems.

While I knew that the major exposures to lead come from lead-based paint, contaminated soil and dust, and drinking water, I didn’t realize that in order to have a comprehensive plan to protect my child from harm, contaminated food should also be on my list.

According to EDF’s analysis of FDA data from 2003 to 2013, 20% of baby food and 14% of other food sampled contained detectable levels of lead. The baby food items with the highest rates of detection include grape, mixed fruit, apple, and pear juices, sweet potatoes and carrots, arrowroot cookies, and teething biscuits.

The following chart details the percentage of various food samples where lead was detected.

There are two key takeaways from this chart.

  1. Some product types have a high percent of lead detection across the samples, while other product types have much smaller percentages.
  2. While many samples of products have detected levels of lead, every category has some products with no detectable levels of lead. This suggests that lead in food is a problem with a solution.

So, what is a food company to do?

  • Step 1 – Set a goal of less than 1 parts per billion (ppb) of lead in baby food and other foods marketed to young children
  • Step 2 – Test for lead
  • Step 3 – Identify the source of contamination – is it the raw ingredients, something the food is exposed to during processing, or something else?
  • Step 4 – Take steps to eliminate the contamination
  • Step 5 – Remain vigilant – keep testing and improving until the contamination is eliminated

What can you do?

Ask companies if they regularly test their products for lead; and whether they ensure that there is less than 1 ppb of lead in the food and juices they sell. If they don’t, let them know it is a high priority concern for you.

I’m about to have another baby, and I hope that by the time baby number two is here and ready to eat solids, food companies have taken the steps necessary to eliminate lead. That way, I can spend more time focusing on eating great food and less time worrying about if it’s  contaminated.

FDA is reevaluating its tolerances for lead in food, and food manufacturers should too

By Tom Neltner, J.D., EDF Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

Until recently, we have known very little about food’s contribution to children’s exposure to lead. Surprisingly, a recent report from the EPA found that two-thirds of one-year olds get most of their exposure from food. FDA has been reviewing its testing methods and standards for a while and just published FAQs regarding lead in food. Leading companies should take notice.

We have written about the health risk of lead exposure from major sources such as paint and water and the well-known fact that there is no safe level of lead in the blood of children. We also wrote about what agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are doing to reduce or eliminate persistent sources of lead exposure as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Food remains a poorly understood source of exposure.

In its FAQs for lead in food, FDA describes what it has done, its current standards, and its planned next steps. The agency makes no reference to EPA’s assessment and attributes the lead in food to contaminated soil. The agency say it seeks to limit lead in food to the greatest extent possible and set the following tolerances:

To limit lead in food to the greatest extent possible, FDA set the following tolerances:

  • Bottled water: 5 parts per billion (ppb);
  • Juices from berries and other small fruits, including grapes, and passion fruits: 50 ppb;
  • Other fruit juices and nectars, including apple: 30 ppb;
  • Candy likely to be consumed by small children: 100 ppb; and
  • Dried fruits, including raisins: 100 ppb.

Only the bottled water tolerance is established in regulations. For the rest, FDA provides only guidance.

How did FDA set the tolerances?

The 5 ppb limit in bottled water was established by FDA in 1995 based on the inability to reliably measure below that level and that only 2 of 48 (4%) samples collected by FDA exceeded those levels. For comparison, in 2016, the AAP recommended lead levels in drinking water at schools be less than 1 ppb.

The fruit juice limits are based on international food standards set by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex), an organization representing 188 countries and the European Union. Those standards were designed to ensure that only about 5% of the juice samples would exceed them. While Codex recognizes the risks posed by lead, its standard was not based on those risks.

For all other foods, FDA relies on a maximum daily intake level of 6 micrograms of lead per day (µg/day) for young children that it established in 1993 based on CDC’s Level of Concern of 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (µg/dL).

One million children exceed FDA’s current maximum daily intake level

In the FAQs, FDA affirmed that “there is no known identified safe blood lead level” and acknowledges that scientific information has become available in the last decade that indicates neurotoxic effects at low levels of exposure to lead. It notes that the evidence has prompted EPA to lower its air quality standard, CDC to strengthen its standards, and the Joint WHO and FAO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) to withdraw its limit for lead because it concluded there was no safe level in food. With this backdrop, FDA is reevaluating “its methods for determining when it should take action with respect to measured levels of lead in particular foods, including those consumed by infants and toddlers.”

At EDF, we are pleased to see FDA has undertaken this long overdue reevaluation. EPA’s draft report estimates that more than 5% of children between 2 and 7 years consume more than the 6 µg of lead/day FDA says is tolerable. This estimate excludes drinking water. With 20 million children in those age groups, that means 1 million children exceed the maximum daily intake level. And, by all accounts, this 1993 level does not reflect the mounting scientific evidence that has led other science-based organizations to reduce their standards. We are also encouraged to see that FDA is willing to be more protective of children’s health by conducting its own assessment rather than just following the Codex standards for fruit juices.

Food manufacturers and retailers can better earn consumer trust and avoid more costly changes by updating their preventive controls and supply chain management programs now to reduce lead levels in food.

Dear CEO: How EPA is critical to protect your customers from harmful chemicals

American businesses benefit tremendously from the robust voluntary and regulatory programs of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These programs are now under threat of massive budget cuts and regulatory roll backs. This blog, focusing on chemical safety, is the latest in a series from EDF + Business highlighting how industry stands to lose from a weakened agency. To prevent these negative consequences, the business community needs to be at the forefront and demand policymakers support the U.S. EPA and its critical mission. 

Recent attacks against EPA for purported regulatory overreach and an anti-business agenda ignore EPA’s crucial work on safer chemicals in the marketplace. EDF + Business works closely with leading companies to address public health and consumer concerns regarding exposure to chemicals. Leading companies rely on smart, science-backed regulations to provide market certainty and protect their industries from bad actors. Threats to underfund and deregulate EPA could jeopardize its continued leadership, which is desperately needed on chemical safety.

In June 2016, the Frank R. Lautenberg Act was signed into law. The Lautenberg Act was the result of a strong bipartisan effort to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and finally give EPA the means to protect Americans from exposure to toxic chemicals. The Lautenberg Act not only had strong support from both sides of the aisle in Congress, it also had strong support from business: including trade groups like the American Chemistry Council, the Chamber of Commerce and individual companies like BASF and SC Johnson. Why? Because they agreed that empowering EPA to review both new and existing chemicals and make affirmative decisions about their safety – thereby providing a consistent foundation for the safety of chemicals in the marketplace – would not only be good for improving public health, it would be good for business. The EPA’s job is to ensure a clean, healthy environment for all Americans. After years of input and strong bipartisan support, the reformed TSCA gave EPA the necessary tools to protect the public from toxic chemicals.

Business stands to benefit from greater market certainty and consumer confidence under the reformed TSCA. For example, product manufacturers should worry less about investing in the commercialization and usage of a chemical that years later could be found to imperil human health. And if the law meets its expectation, companies may in the long-term have less to fear about the state activity that had picked up when the federal government was not equipped to do its job. This action had been filling the void but led to a patchwork of requirements and regulations that bedeviled companies and left consumers confused about which chemicals in products were safe. The promise of greater market certainty and greater consumer confidence was critical to the Lautenberg Act’s support in Congress. Republican Senate sponsor David Vitter said, “Republicans agree to give EPA a whole lot [of] new additional authority. . . In exchange, that leads to … a common rulebook.”

However, fulfilling the promise of market certainty for industry and greater protection of consumer health depends on a funded and staffed EPA.  If some in industry and their allies in Congress seek to undermine EPA at every turn – whether through budget cuts, anti-regulatory legislation, or stall tactics – they will stymie the promise of the Lautenberg Act and find themselves back at square one. If on the other hand, business, environmentalists, Democrats and Republicans cooperate as they did to get the Lautenberg Act passed – but this time to ensure that EPA is enabled to implement the Lautenberg Act successfully, putting public health first – we could see a new era of chemical safety and innovation in the industry. And finally achieve what business and everyday Americans need.

Effective enforcement of bipartisan legislation is not the only place that the EPA can and must continue to lead. Creating opportunities for business leadership is also important. The innovative Energy Star program, a joint EPA-DOE voluntary energy efficiency program, is a great example of successful collaboration between business and federal agencies.  The EPA is also the architect of another, perhaps lesser known, voluntary corporate leadership program called Safer Choice.

The Safer Choice program is widely used by companies, celebrated by consumer advocacy groups, and helps to reduce the level of exposure to potentially hazardous chemicals. Touted by Consumer Reports as a meaningful tool for shoppers, the Safer Choice program recognizes products whose chemical ingredients are the safest within their function (e.g. solvents). Each product bearing the Safer Choice label – over 2000 today – has been evaluated by EPA scientists to ensure that the product’s ingredients meet the program’s rigorous human health and environmental safety criteria. BASF, Levi Strauss, Clorox, Staples, AkzoNobel, Sun Products are just a few of the 500 companies in the retail supply chain that have made the offering of Safer Choice ingredients or products a key part of their business. Likewise, influential trade associations such as The Worldwide Cleaning Industry Association (ISSA), with over 7000 members, and the Consumer Specialty Products Association (CSPA), with over 250 companies representing $100 billion in sales annually, have recognized and promoted Safer Choice as a program that can give companies a competitive edge in the marketplace. In a recent op-ed, CSPA called for the new EPA Administrator to support Safer Choice because it “has provided tangible, bottom-line results for consumers, businesses and environmental advocates.”

EPA regulatory enforcement to protect health, and voluntary programs that recognize leading companies, benefit all Americans.

Why Food Safety Plans must consider chemical hazards

By: Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant, Environmental Defense Fund

Since September 17, 2016, most facilities storing, processing, or manufacturing food are required to identify and, if necessary, control potential hazards in food under a Preventive Controls Rule promulgated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) pursuant to the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 (FSMA). Some foods have had similar requirements in place for years. For example, fruit and vegetable juice processors have been required to have a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Plan since the early 2000s.

Record numbers of consumers rate chemicals as their top food safety concern A Food Safety Plan required by FDA is an effective means to respond to this concern and proactively manage risks posed by chemicals instead of reacting to often preventable incidents.

The driving force behind the law and the rules has been reducing the hazard of pathogenic contamination in food. However, the Preventive Controls Rule defines a hazard broadly to include any chemical, whether a contaminant or an additive, that “has the potential to cause illness or injury.”

In this blog, we will explore how the requirements of the Preventive Controls Rule apply to chemical hazards using lead as an example. We chose lead because it is known to cause injury and clearly meets the definition of a hazard. It is well-established that there is no safe level of lead in the blood of children leading to lower IQ and academic achievement, and increases in attention related behaviors. We also know it is all too common in food that toddlers eat. And scientific evidence indicates that much of the lead in food gets into children’s blood.

Four potential sources of lead in the food supply chain

Lead can get into food in different ways including:

  • Absorption from contaminated soil into the roots, leaves, and, possibly, fruit. Soil may be contaminated from past use of lead arsenate pesticides or air deposition from burning leaded gasoline.
  • Contact with contaminated soil during production or harvesting. For example, soil may get into a head of lettuce or on an apple that falls to the ground.
  • Leaching from food handling equipment such as that made from brass or plastic that had lead intentionally added. Until 2014, brass used in drinking water applications could contain up to 8% lead and still be called lead-free. If such brass were used in pumps and valves in food production, leaching of lead into food may occur. Similarly, lead has also been used in PVC plastic as a stabilizer, although it has been phased out in U.S. and Europe. It is important to note that lead is not approved by FDA to be intentionally added to anything that contacts food. If any leaches into food from these sources, the lead would be considered an unapproved food additive. That would render the food adulterated and, therefore, illegal to sell. Note that a supplier’s claim that a material is “food grade” is no guarantee that its use is legal.
  • Contamination of food or food contact materials during processing such as lead from deteriorated paint in the building.

Elements of a Food Safety Plan

Under the Preventive Controls Rule, most facilities storing, processing or manufacturing food must have a written Food Safety Plan that consists of seven items:

  1. A hazard analysis to identify and evaluate known or reasonably foreseeable hazards;
  2. Preventive controls to ensure hazards are significantly minimized or prevented and food will not be adulterated;
  3. Risk-based supply chain program to protect raw materials and ingredients from hazards;
  4. Plan for recalls should they be necessary;
  5. Procedures to monitor preventive controls to assure they are consistently performed;
  6. Corrective action procedures if preventive controls are not properly implemented; and
  7. Verification procedures to validate that preventive controls are adequate and effective, other procedures are being followed, and plan is reevaluated at least once every three years.

The path forward

The FSMA food safety planning requirements put in place a systematic approach for food manufacturers to prevent food safety problems rather than react when they arise. This includes problems that can result from chemical hazards as well as pathogens. The goal is to ensure that consumers are not exposed to adulterated food, whether because it contains “any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health” or it contains an unapproved food or color additive.

A robust food safety plan for lead and other chemicals such as perchlorate would go a long way to protect children and pregnant women from unnecessary exposures to chemicals known to impair brain development, and the businesses from unnecessary risk.

What a Food Safety Plan would say for lead

To comply with the regulations and mitigate risk, the food manufacturer/processor’s written food safety plan is required to identify lead as a hazard if it is reasonably foreseeable that lead could get into food either as a contaminant or from its intentional addition to materials such as brass or plastic used in food handling equipment.

If the plan identifies lead as a hazard, the company must evaluate the risk by assessing (1) the severity of the illness or injury if the hazard were to occur, and (2) the probability that the hazard will occur in the absence of preventive controls. The plan must also develop and implement preventive controls to assure lead levels are significantly minimized or prevented and the food is not adulterated. The controls would likely include:

Next, the company must identify how the preventive controls would be monitored to spot implementation problems, explain how a recall would be conducted if lead were found to exceed the maximum amount identified in the plan or is present as an unapproved food additive, and describe what corrective action would be taken to prevent future recalls.

Finally, the food manufacturer/processor must reanalyze its Food Safety Plan at least every three years or when:

  1. There is a significant change in the activities conducted at the facility that creates a reasonable potential for a new hazard or creates a significant increase in a previously identified hazard;
  2. The food manufacturer becomes aware of new information about potential hazards associated with the food;
  3. An unanticipated food safety problem occurs; or
  4. The food manufacturer finds the preventive control, combination of preventive controls, or the food safety plan as a whole is ineffective.

The Food Safety Plans are not made publicly available, but they must be made available to FDA on request or during an inspection. Potential downstream buyers and retailers most likely can obtain a copy through their own supply chain management programs.

Target moves up the safer chemicals leadership ladder

Yesterday Target announced a new chemicals policy that applies to all products sold in its stores and to its operations. Does this policy have the capability to transform the marketplace by ushering in safer affordable products? Let’s take a look.

In the new policy, Target announces aspirations and time-bounded goals framed in three major areas: transparency, chemical management, and innovation.

On transparency, Target has surpassed its competitors by committing to gain not only full visibility into the chemicals in final products but also into chemicals used in manufacturing operations. Target also takes a leadership stance by aspiring for this full material disclosure across all product categories. This goal is significant and noteworthy, considering the number and variety of products (and associated manufacturing processes) at the average retail store. Target will first implement this transparency goal in “beauty, baby care, personal care and household cleaning formulated products by 2020”. In one drawback, Target is quiet regarding if and how this enhanced supply chain transparency will translate into greater ingredient transparency to consumers.

In the second area, chemical management, Target vows to implement a hazard-based approach to prioritize chemicals. It announces the use of hazard profiles – which characterize the inherent health and environmental hazards of chemicals – in judging which chemicals get added to Target’s new Restricted Substances Lists (RSLs) and Manufacturing Restricted Substances Lists (MRSLs), for future reduction and/or removal. This approach is critical to fostering safer product design and is in line with the philosophy of the Commons Principles for Alternatives Assessment, guiding principles EDF helped develop.  To kick off this work, Target outlines chemical and product specific goals: removal of PFCs and flame retardants from textiles by 2022 and removal of formaldehyde and formaldehyde donors, phthalates, butyl paraben, propyl paraben, and NPEs from the formulated product categories mentioned above by 2020.

Finally, Target commits to directly support safer chemicals innovation. In doing so, Target has shown its understanding that eliminating hazardous chemicals from the consumer product value chain is half the battle; promoting the development or discovery of safer alternatives and enabling their usability in products is as important. Specifically, Target pledges an investment of up to $5 million in green chemistry innovation by 2022.

Target also pledges to publicly share progress against its new policy on an annual basis. We look forward to this regular engagement of the public and hope it will include quantitative measures of progress.

EDF commends Target for establishing a corporate chemicals policy, making it ambitious, and stipulating time-bound goals in specific product categories. Target continues the emphasis on beauty, home and personal care, and baby products that it initiated in 2013 with its Sustainable Product Index. New to the fold is action on safer textiles. In another welcome development, Target has publicly released a key set of chemicals of concern that it plans to remove from these product categories. Interestingly for formulated products, Target’s starting list of chemicals for removal is very similar to the initial set of high priority chemicals Walmart disclosed in 2016. With the two largest retailers in the U.S. not slowing down on safer chemicals leadership, the future of the marketplace looks healthier.  Will other retailers finally follow suit?

New CSPI report investigates "clean label" foods, offers key recommendations

Slightly more than a third of Americans think “clean-label” products are free from artificial ingredients. About a third think it means organic or natural. And roughly a third of Americans don’t know what clean label means. For retailers, restaurants, and food manufacturers, that creates a challenging landscape – and one with few [1] defined guardrails.

Today, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a new report, Clean Labels: Public Relations or Public Health?, that assesses efforts by four restaurants – Chipotle Mexican Grill, Noodles & Company, Panera Bread, and Papa John’s – and nine grocers – Ahold Delhaize (Food Lion, Giant Food, Stop and Shop), Aldi, H-E-B, Kroger, Meijer, Supervalu, Target, Wakefern (ShopRite), and Whole Foods  – to deliver what they interpreted a “clean label” product to mean. The report is well worth the read.

EDF agrees with the CSPI report statement that, “[m]ost substances added to food—even ones with long chemical names—are safe… But some are not, and many have been poorly tested. Indeed, the system intended to ensure the safety of ingredients added to food is deeply flawed.”

We also agree with CSPI that, “To the extent that clean label products are healthier than their non-clean label counterparts, because they are made with actual foods instead of cheap chemical imitations, they deserve praise. Still, the absence of artificial ingredients does not make a food healthy, since it could still be loaded with saturated fat, salt, or added sugars and be largely devoid of dietary fiber and nutrients.” For EDF, clean labels also provide no assurance about other unknown and hazardous food additives such as those used in packaging like perchlorate or that enter food during manufacturing and processing like phthalates.

What should make the report of interest to all engaged in the business of food, from those making it to eating it, are the well-substantiated recommendations for addressing food ingredients in clean-label programs. The CSPI report defines and then assesses the suite of best-in-class clean label efforts by supermarkets and restaurants across three major components:  ingredients covered, food and beverage products covered, and transparency. In general, transparency efforts are strongest, coverage across products is weakest, with ingredient reformulation somewhere in the middle.

The report concludes with a trio of target recommendations and action steps, including:

  • Prioritize public health – Clean-label commitments should be accompanied by meaningful improvements to the nutritional quality of the foods and beverages sold.
  • Comprehensive policies – Lists of prohibited ingredients should apply to all products a restaurant makes or sells, including beverages, and supermarkets should expand clean label policies to all of their private-label brands.
  • Transparency – Restaurants should provide complete ingredient and nutrition information for all menu items, both on-site and on their website, and supermarkets should provide this information on their websites.

Given that natural is an artificial, and often erroneous, synonym for healthy, Clean Labels: Public Relations or Public Health? does just what CSPI intended – provides a useful assessment of clean label efforts that give direction and guidance to companies committed to improving the health and safety of the food they make and sell.

For companies seeking to improve their own food offerings, EDF+Business invites you to visit Behind the Label: A Blueprint for Safer Food Additives in the Marketplace. This online resource details best practices for the five pillars of leadership, offers a model policy and case example, as well as tracking corporate efforts in this space.

[1] “Certified organic” is a federally defined and regulated status.