Bystanders to a Public Health Crisis

How to Cite

Cronin, K. (2024). Bystanders to a Public Health Crisis: The Failures of the U.S. Multi-Agency Regulatory Approach to Food Safety in the Face of Persistent Organic Pollutants. Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, 49(2), 291–356.


Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are devastating our food systems and our health. Due to widespread use, these synthetic, long-lasting chemicals, are omnipresent at dangerous levels in our envi-ronment and our homes. Recent studies link even small exposure to PFAS to a host of adverse health outcomes, including cancer, autoim-mune diseases, thyroid disease, liver damage, childhood obesity, infer-tility, and birth defects.

Food consumption is a primary route of PFAS exposure. PFAS mi-grate from water, soil, fertilizers, pesticides, and compost into virtually every plant, fish, animal, and animal product, and ultimately (in the greatest concentration) into the consumer. In addition, food pro-cessing equipment, disposable dishes, and containers leach dangerous levels of these chemicals into processed food products, further infusing our every meal with PFAS. Consequently, it is no surprise everything from chocolate cake and microwave popcorn to free range eggs, wildcaught fish, organic milk, and organic kale can harbor staggering quantities of these toxic substances.

Despite the widespread presence of these substances and strong sci-entific evidence of their harmful impact on humans, federal regulation of PFAS in food is currently nonexistent. At least fifteen agencies have a mandate to ensure the safety of our food. More is not always better. In the case of regulatory agencies, it can lead to fragmented demand for attention, diffusion of responsibilities, and bureaucratic bystander apathy. This story has played out time and again with other toxic con-taminants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and pesticides and is playing out yet again with PFAS. Despite our country’s devastating experience with past contaminants and the unprecedented scientific progress of our time, the federal response to new food safety threats has only become more sluggish and inadequate.

This article lays a pathway for change, taking the issue of PFAS food contamination as a case study for the broader dysfunction in the food safety regulatory system. Part II reviews the history of federal food regulation and explores the role that each federal actor in the field plays in ensuring the safety of the food supply. Part III provides back-ground on the chemical and toxicological profile of PFAS and their widespread presence in the environment in general and the food sup-ply in particular. Part IV examines possible approaches to more effec-tive regulation of environmental contaminants in food and proposes a readily available but currently overlooked mechanism for combatting the current public health crisis of PFAS in food. Lastly, Part V cata-logues the expected benefits of the solution and addresses anticipated skepticism. It concludes that the proposed approach can effectively protect consumers from PFAS in food today, while simultaneously gar-nering much needed data to usher in a more permanent solution in the future.
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Copyright (c) 2024 Katya S. Cronin