FDA Denies Petition to Ban All Phthalates in Food Packaging

The chemicals have been linked to numerous health problems, but the agency says it needs more information

Two clear plastic bottles of oil
Plastic bottles that have the recycling code "3" on them, including some used for cooking oil, contain phthalates.
Photo: Getty Images

The Food and Drug Administration this week rejected two petitions from a group of public health, food safety, and environmental organizations urging the agency to disallow the use of phthalates in food packaging and processing materials. 

Commonly used to make plastic less rigid and more pliable, phthalates are known to leach out of those materials into foods and drinks that they touch, exposing consumers when they eat. Decades of scientific research has linked phthalate exposure to serious health problems in humans, including birth defects, infertility, endocrine system disruption, and an increased risk of learning, attention, and behavioral disorders in children.

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Phthalates are found in products throughout the food production chain, from conveyor belts and plastic piping in manufacturing plants, to gloves used during food prep, to food packaging containers, such as the lining in some milk cartons and juice boxes. 

The FDA did withdraw authorization for the use of 23 specific phthalates in food packaging and processing on the grounds that a plastics industry trade group, the Flexible Vinyl Alliance, in its own petition to the agency, had shown that the chemicals are no longer used for those purposes. 

But the agency declined to discontinue the use of nine other phthalates, saying that the petitioners had not proved that those chemicals are unsafe for use in food packaging and processing. 

“FDA’s decision recklessly greenlights ongoing contamination of our food with phthalates, putting another generation of children at risk of life-altering harm,” says Earthjustice attorney Katherine O’Brien, who represented a consortium of consumer groups—including the Environmental Defense Fund, the Center for Environmental Health, the Learning Disabilities Association of America, and the Center for Food Safety—in their efforts to persuade the FDA to disallow use of the chemicals. 

Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumer Reports, echoes those concerns. “It’s disappointing that the FDA declined to discontinue the nine additional phthalates because the science is very clear that these compounds are linked to adverse effects, especially in children. The science was evident in 2016 when the petition was filed and has been reinforced through subsequent studies,” he says. 

In 2017, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of eight phthalates in toys and other children’s products after its expert panel concluded they presented health risks. Three of those banned phthalates are among the nine that the FDA says can still be used in food containers and processing materials.

The FDA’s decision came in response to a March 2016 petition from the environmental and health groups. They argued that, given the scientific evidence on the dangers of phthalates, the FDA could not be reasonably certain that the substances are safe for their approved uses, as the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires it to be. 

The same law requires the FDA to grant or deny such a petition within 180 days. But the agency repeatedly asked for more information, in one case receiving from the group a 71-page analysis citing more than 200 scientific articles. In December 2021, five and half years after their initial filing, the petitioners asked a federal court to force the FDA to issue a ruling, accusing it of engaging in a “marathon round of administrative keep-away.” The FDA issued its final report only after the court ordered it to respond. 

While denying the petitions, the agency did say it would now seek yet more information on the use and safety of the nine phthalates still being used. “The FDA is generally aware of updated toxicological and use information on phthalates that is publicly available,” it wrote in a press release issued alongside the decision. 

Health and safety advocates noted that, in 2018, the agency pushed off its deadline to respond because new scientific information they had submitted—at the FDA’s request—amounted to a substantive change to the petition. “FDA’s announcement that it will now start reviewing new data on phthalate safety—six years after advocates sounded the alarm—is outrageous and seeks to sidestep FDA’s legal duty to address the current science in proceedings on the existing petitions,” says Earthjustice attorney O’Brien. 

Although phthalates are hard to avoid altogether—numerous studies have found them in almost all Americans—there are some things you can do to minimize your exposure from food, including the following:. 

• Eat fresh, home-cooked food as often as possible, and avoid store-bought and processed food that comes in plastic.
• Drink tap water rather than bottled water. (Read more about how to check and address the safety of your tap water.)
• Don’t store food in plastic; instead, use glass, silicone, or foil. 
• Don’t microwave food in plastic containers; instead, use conventional heating methods (stove or oven) or microwave in glass containers.

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Scott Medintz

I've been a writer and editor for more than 25 years, focusing much of that time on pro-consumer service journalism in areas including personal finance, business, law, technology, travel, and autos. I especially enjoy empowering consumers by demystifying financial jargon, legalese, and marketing doublespeak.