Dioxins are nasty chemicals. They are human carcinogens. They cause reproductive problems, wreck the immune system, and interfere with hormonal production. The World Health Organization ranks them among the “Dirty Dozen,” a group made up of organic toxins that persist in the environment (and our bodies) for decades.
Although they are produced mainly by industrial processes, more than 90 percent of the dioxins in our bodies get there through our food, particularly meat, dairy products, and fish.
Given their ubiquity—and toxicity—it stands to reason that government health officials would have long ago determined what levels of dioxin are safe in our food supply and set appropriate standards.
But when has reason triumphed in matters related to food safety? It wasn’t until last August that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), after nearly a decade of analysis, announced that it would be releasing a risk assessment of dioxins in food, due out sometime this month.
But food industry groups wasted no time in condemning the move. “EPA should exercise as much thought and care as possible about the reassessment’s possible impact on consumer attitudes, purchasing decisions, and consumption patterns,” wrote the Food Industry Dioxin Working Group, in comments about the proposed guidelines. The group’s members include the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the International Dairy Foods Association, the National Fisheries Council, the National Pork Producers Council, and the Corn Refiners Association.
The consortium complained that the dioxin reassessment’s “focus on food” is beyond the EPA’s area of authority. The EPA, according to the industry group, relied on “grossly inadequate exposure and consumption data, coupled with badly flawed statistical approaches.” They took the EPA to task for forecasting risks over a life span of 70 years because dioxin levels in the environment might drop over that time. The guidelines, they said, are “irrelevant to human health. Yet that is just how it will be perceived by the consuming public and the media if it is released in its current form.”
It’s difficult to see how anyone can consider issues surrounding potential fatal poisons as irrelevant to human health. The European Union and World Health Organization have already established safe limits for dioxins in food. They are weaker than those proposed by the EPA, but in the case of dioxins, any limitations are better than none, which is what we might end up with if the food companies succeed in silencing the EPA scientists.