Health

Portland group key to convincing General Mills to drop chemical from mac-and-cheese processing

A Portland-based advocacy group was instrumental in getting the owners of a popular macaroni-and-cheese brand to work toward eliminating a potentially harmful chemical from its packaging process.

General Mills, the corporate parent of Annie’s Homegrown, announced last week that it will begin eliminating ortho-phthalates from Annie’s packaging and food processing equipment, about four years after the chemical was identified in popular macaroni and cheese products. The chemical, which makes plastic more flexible, is often used in food processing equipment, such as tubing and conveyor belts, and can be picked up by food, particularly dairy products such as cheese, as it’s processed.

Defend Our Health, a 10-person Portland organization formed 19 years ago, has worked with General Mills to get the company to agree to eliminate the chemicals. The group says the chemicals can disrupt male hormones and some researchers have linked them to learning problems in children, although the plastics industry says food products contain only small amounts of the chemicals and regulators have not ruled that they are dangerous to consumers.

Mike Belliveau, executive director of Defend Our Health, said his organization thinks otherwise and wants the chemicals eliminated from foods.

He said General Mills was receptive to his group’s arguments.

“That company has a commitment to sustainability and the Annie’s brand itself has a proud history of using organic ingredients,” he said.

Once Defend Our Health made its case about phthalates and showed General Mills that there are safe alternatives, “they came around to recognizing that they needed to do more,” he said.

However, the company has so far resisted Belliveau’s request that it lay out a timeline for eliminating the chemicals, he said. General Mills has said it will take time for companies in the supply chain to determine if the chemical is present in equipment, and more time to eliminate it and confirm that it’s gone, The New York Times reported.

Defend Our Health, originally named the Environmental Health Strategy Center, helped fund a study four years ago that identified the chemicals in a variety of foods. Belliveau said the group has been active in Maine health issues and helped craft legislation in 2008 that eliminated the chemical BPA from baby bottles in Maine.

“We have a long history in Maine of working for safe drinking water and safe consumer products,” he said.

More recently, the group was a prime sponsor of a law banning phthalates in products sold in Maine starting next year, a step that may lead to bans on other harmful chemicals in food and packaging, he said.

Under the law, Maine will list 10 chemicals of “high concern” and require manufacturers to disclose if those chemicals are in their food products. Producers will also be required to determine whether safer alternatives are available, and sales of products containing dangerous chemicals could be banned.

Getting Maine to spearhead the approach is key, Belliveau said.

“Once a few states take action, it can drive those chemicals out of the marketplace,” he said, because manufacturers want to operate under one production process no matter which markets they are selling to.

That’s why General Mills’ agreement on Annie’s mac-and-cheese was so significant, he said.

“We applaud General Mills and Annie’s for their commitment,” Belliveau said. Having the company agree to eliminate the chemicals marks Defend Our Health’s first major win with a national food producer, he said. He admits, however, that his organization has had mixed success trying to convince other companies to eliminate phthalates.

Kraft, the nation’s largest mac-and-cheese maker, is “giving the country the cold shoulder on this issue right now,” but Nestle “has been a little more open” to discussing it, he said. And Ahold Delhaize, a Dutch-based supermarket giant, announced last year that it would become part of a grocery industry coalition that is eliminating phthalates from their private label brands.

Ahold Delhaize owns Hannaford supermarkets.

“It takes a little time,” Belliveau said, but he believes the tide is shifting toward getting the chemicals out of food processing.

“These chemicals don’t show up on the ingredient list. They were never intentionally added,” he said.

“In the last three years, there’s been an emerging consensus” based on science on the risks posed by the chemicals, said Belliveau, who earned a degree in environmental science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


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