Expert Panel Warns Females of Dioxins in Food

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, July 1, 2003 (ENS) - The health risks from dioxins in foods are too unknown for regulatory limits, an independent panel of experts said today, but a federal interagency group should spearhead efforts to reduce human exposure to dioxins in foods.

These efforts should focus specifically on reducing exposure to girls and women, encouraging stricter compliance with dietary recommendations to consume less animal fat, and improving data collection of levels of dioxins in human food and animal feed, according to the report released by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

Dioxins - and dioxin-like compounds - are persistent organic pollutants produced by waste incineration and other industrial processes. They accumulate in the body fat of animals and people, and the fats in animal meat, whole mild and full-fat dairy products are the principal sources of most people's exposure.

The European Union has set limits for dioxins in food, as high levels of dioxins have been linked to endocrine-related conditions, developmental problems, and susceptibility to cancer, among other health hazards.

But the Institute of Medicine panel determined that the data gaps are too great to determine whether small amounts of dioxins are toxic and at what levels they begin to pose risks.

"It is not a question of there being no data, there is good data and the report quantifies and presents it," said committee member Julie Caswell, a resource economics professor at the University of Massachusetts. girlsmiles

Dioxins accumulate in the body over time, so reducing exposure at an early age is critical. (Photo by Ken Hammond courtesy USDA)
"But if you want to reduce dioxin exposure the data to choose strategies to do that is inadequate," she explained.

As a result, the panel is "recommending simple, prudent steps to further reduce dioxin exposure while data are gathered that will clarify the risks, " said Robert Lawrence, associate dean at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health and chair of the committee that wrote the report.

The report, "Dioxins and Dioxin-like Compounds in the Food Supply: Strategies to Decrease Exposure," was requested by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The most direct way for humans to reduce dietary exposure to dioxins, the report finds, is to reduce consumption of animal fat. As dioxins are persistent and long lived compounds that accumulate in human tissues over a lifetime, the panel recommends that aggressive action be taken to reduce exposure in girls and women.

This is the only practical way to reduce dioxin exposure in fetuses and breast feeding infants, which are more susceptible to the harmful effects of dioxins, the report finds.

Given the health and social benefits of breast-feeding, the committee recommended strategies to reduce accumulated body levels of dioxins, rather than to discourage breast-feeding. lunch

The panel recommends the government examine the levels of saturated fats in school lunch and breakfast programs, which collectively provide mealst to more than 30 million children. (Photo by Ken Hammond courtesy USDA)
The panel says the government-sponsored food programs, such as the National School Lunch Program, should increase the availability of foods low in animal fat. In particular, low-fat milk should be made more widely available in the school lunch program and the USDA should analyze the impact of setting limits on the amount of saturated fat that can be present in meals served in the school breakfast and lunch programs.

The committee calls for the promotion of compliance with the Dietary Guidelines for American on the consumption of saturated fats as a way to minimize dioxin exposure without compromising nutrition.

"We are recommending that the current USDA guidelines that call for 10 percent saturated fat and 30 percent total fat be followed," Lawrence said.

The panel found that dietary changes to reduce dioxin exposure may have additional benefit of reducing the risks of cardiovascular disease and other health risks associated with excessive consumption of saturated fat.

Because of the health benefits associated with omega-3 fatty acids in fish and the difficulty of trimming fat from fish, the committee did not recommend that people reduce their consumption of fatty fish below the currently recommended two servings per week.

Lawrence told reporters that "some of the same guidelines that have been released to reduce our exposure to mercury would apply" to setting limits on the intake of fish at the top of the food chain.

The report recommends that an interagency group make serious efforts to collect data on the actual levels and distribution of dioxins in the food supply and calls for the establishment of a nationwide data collection effort and a single repository for data on dioxin levels in animal forage and feed.

Getting a handle on how, where and to what extent dioxins get into animal feed "presents the greatest opportunity to reduce dioxin levels in food," said committee member Michael Taylor, senior fellow and director of the Risk Resource and Environmental Management Division at Resources for the Future, a nonprofit environmental think tank..

"A high priority should be placed on reducing contamination of animal forage and feed," Taylor said, "and in interrupting the recycling of dioxins that results from the use of animal fat in animal feeds."

Until there is enough data to shed light on whether there should be regulatory limits, the committee recommends the interagency coordinating group engage the private and public sectors on programs to reduce exposure in human foods and animal feed. beef

The committee says better data is needed of dioxin levels in animal feed and human food. (Photo by Bill Tarpenning courtesy USDA)
For example, federal agencies should work with food producers to develop voluntary guidelines for animal feeding and food-production practices that would minimize animals' exposure to dioxins.

The panel says further improvements in analytical tools and methods will enable researchers to better characterize any possible risks associated with low-level exposure. The report concludes that the "most pressing need is for the development of low cost analytical methods to detect dioxins," Taylor said.

The current expense of $1,000 per sample is an obstacle to collection of data need for comprehensive risk management strategy, Taylor told reporters.

A positive sign, Lawrence says, is that dioxin levels in the environment have declined dramatically in recent decades - by as much as 76 percent since the 1970s, according to some measurements.

The panelists available at today's press briefing were unable to comment on Monday's release of toxics data by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that indicated a 50 percent increase in the total releases of dioxin and dioxin-like compounds in 2001 compared to 2000.

In Monday's prepared statement, the EPA wrote that the overall long term trend is that levels of dioxin are decreasing and suggests that the increase in 2001 was in part due to one time maintenance at several facilities.

The full Institute of Medicine report on dioxins in foods can be found here.