There’s a lot of talk about PFAS contamination in the news lately. It seems like every other day there’s a new story about how this chemical is polluting our environment and making us sick. So, it’s natural to be concerned about whether or not it’s in our food.
The FDA conducted testing of prepared foods and found PFAS compounds in fish sticks. PFAS concentrations in fish sticks ranged from non-detect to 734 parts per trillion. The FDA did not identify which brands of fish sticks were tested. The agency noted that they could not draw definitive conclusions about the safety of PFAS levels in seafood.
In this blog post, we’ll take a look at some surprising results from a recent FDA study on PFAS in our food.
Read my comprehensive article about PFAS contamination in our food.
Related articles about PFAS in our food:
Is PFAS in Canned Tuna: What You Need to Know
Do Shrimp Have PFAS In Them? Shocking Answers
Does Salmon Have PFAS in it? What Are Your Risks?
Does Cod Fish Have PFAS in it? A Look at the Science
Does Tilapia Have PFAS in It? What You Need to Know
What is PFAS
There is growing concern over the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in our food and drinking water. These man-made chemicals are a group of organic compounds containing fluorine. There are more than 4,500 PFAS compounds including PFOA, PFOS, and GenX.
These chemicals have been used in a variety of industries for decades, and can be found in products like nonstick cookware, food packaging, stain-resistant fabrics, cosmetics, and firefighting foams.
While PFAS are often helpful in resisting heat, grease stains, and water, they also pose serious health risks if consumed or inhaled over long periods of time.
Read my comprehensive article on PFAS to learn more about these forever chemicals.
How does PFAS get in my food?
PFAS is an exceedingly persistent pollutant that does not readily decompose in the environment. These contaminants enter the food supply through contaminated water, soil, or air.
Plants take in PFAS chemicals that are dissolved in water. Animals that eat plants can also be exposed to PFAS. Fish and shellfish can absorb PFAS chemicals from the water they live in.
Numerous studies encompassing more than 44 countries have all shown the presence of PFAS chemicals in our oceans. These forever chemicals are absorbed by plankton and other sea life, which are subsequently consumed by tiny fish. PFAS works its way up the food chain when predator fish consume smaller prey fish. This process increases the concentration of these chemicals in the bodies of large fish. When we eat them, we are exposed to greater levels of PFAS.
Health concerns and PFAS
Serious health concerns have been linked to human exposure of PFAS, including:
- thyroid problems
- immune system problems
- high cholesterol
- pregnancy-induced hypertension
- liver damage
Research on animals has also demonstrated that PFAS exposure can result in developmental problems and low birth weight.
What Levels of PFAS in Food are Safe?
There is no recommended safe level of PFAS in food set by the United States government. The EPA has established maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for drinking water – these are the safe limits for contaminants in water. Unfortunately, there is no corresponding quality standard for our food.
The lack of clarity around safe PFAS levels is one reason we don’t have a regulatory standard for food. It is difficult to precisely predict how much of a toxic chemical people can consume before they become sick.
Another reason for this dilemma is toxicologists – the health experts who establish these standards – can’t agree on how to evaluate the risks.
Maine CDC standard for PFAS in food
The Maine CDC recently developed a very useful standard for determining safe levels of PFAS in seafood. Their new guide is known as chemical-specific fish tissue action levels (FTALs).
FTALs specify the highest levels of PFAS in fish you should be able to eat with negligible risk of toxic effects. Because PFAS bioaccumulate in humans(i.e., do not dissipate over time), the guide has a “meal advice” recommendation so you know how often you can safely eat PFAS-contaminated fish.
The table below lists the safe levels of PFAS in fish you can consume. It also identifies how often you can consume contaminated seafood. These values are developed by the Maine CDC.
|PFOS in fish (ng/kg)||Meal advice|
|3,500||1 meal per week|
|7,500||2 meals per month|
|15,000||1 meal per month|
|30,000||6 meals per year|
|60,000||3 meals per year|
|> 60,000||Do Not Eat|
European Food Safety Authority standard for PFAS in food
Various government agencies across the globe have established different levels and guidelines. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Europ’s equivalent of our FDA, has established an exposure limit for the combined total of 4 PFAS chemicals in food.
The 4 compounds EFSA regulates are:
- perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
- perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)
- perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA)
- perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS)
The EFSA limit for the combined total of these four PFAS compounds is 4.4 ng/kg of body weight per week.
PFAS in Fish Sticks
The FDA conducted PFAS testing in a wide range of foods. Their testing found forever chemicals in 3 of the 167 processed foods they tested. Tests showed detectable concentrations of PFAS in fish sticks, canned tuna, and protein powder.
The FDA tested each sample for 16 PFAS chemicals. Five different PFAS compounds were found in the fish sticks they tested.
FDA food testing methodology
Testing food for the presence of PFAS is difficult. To overcome this challenge, the FDA developed a novel analytical method to test for PFAs in food.
This new procedure can measure 16 PFAS compounds in food using liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry methods. Their new method was verified to be accurate for the following food matrices:
- infant formula
- strawberry gelatin
- pancake syrup
- cream cheese
- shredded wheat cereal
The FDA food test method quantifies the following PFAS chemicals:
|NaDONA||Sodium dodecafluoro-3H-4, 8-dioxanonanoate|
FDA fish sticks testing results
The following table presents the results from the 2022 seafood survey conducted by the FDA. These results are for PFAS compounds detected fish sticks.
|Item Description||Total PFAS|
|Panko breaded fish sticks||29|
|Beer battered fillets||57|
These results are in nanograms per kilogram (ng/kg), which is the same as ppt. If you ate 1 kilogram of the “Fillets” – the fish sticks with the highest concentration, you would ingest 734 nanograms of PFAS.
A kilogram is 2.2 pounds, which is a lot of fish sticks. However, a serving of Gorton’s fish sticks is 106 grams, which is 0.106 kilograms. If you eat fish sticks ten times, you’ve consumed a kilogram.
How much PFAS is in fish sticks?
How much PFAS are you consuming when you have a portion of fish sticks? Let’s take a look at the sample with the highest concentration – the “Fillets” sample.
Here is the data:
- PFAS concentration: 734 ng/kg
- Fish stick portion size: 106 grams (0.106 kg)
- PFAS in serving size of fish sticks: 77.804 nanograms
What is the significance of these results? It’s hard to say, especially since the US has no safety regulations for PFAS in our food.
Maine’s Standard: The maximum PFAS level detected in fish sticks was 734 ng/kg. This is less than the lowest FTAL limit of 3,500 ng/kg. Maine’s CDC guidance is 1 meal per week.
EFSA Standard: Let’s compare these data to the EFSA limit for PFAS of 4.4 ng/kg of body weight per week. An average person weighs approximately 68 kilograms (150 pounds).
Here is the math: 68 kg x 4.4 ng/kg per week = 299.2 ng per week
One serving of fish sticks has 77.8 nanograms of PFAS. This represents about 26% of the weekly limit allowed by EFSA. Theoretically, you could eat fish sticks four times each week without any health complications.
In my opinion, no amount of PFAS is safe. This is troubling, especially since I really enjoy fish sticks.
Which PFAS compounds were found in fish sticks?
The FDA found 5 PFAS compounds in the 10 samples of fish sticks they tested. These compounds are:
1. PFNA: maximum value = 106 ng/kg
2. PFDA: maximum value = 147 ng/kg
3. PFUdA: maximum value = 284 ng/kg
4. PFDoA: maximum value = 97 ng/kg
5. PFTrDA: maximum value = 106 ng/kg
The FDA did not identify the specific brands of fish sticks they tested. This makes it impossible to know which brands are safe and which ones are not.
FDA statement on food safety
The FDA provided a lot of information but didn’t offer any explanation about how to interpret the results. The report indicates that PFAS was detected in every can of tuna fish, but they did not release the brand names of the tuna they tested.
In one statement, the FDA noted that the sample sizes in their study were limited. As a result, the results cannot be used to form definite conclusions about PFAS levels in seafood available to the public.
All of this has left many people confused and afraid.
The FDA’s main focus was that while low levels of PFAS were found in three types of food, there is currently “no scientific evidence” that the general public should be alarmed or avoid eating any foods due to these trace concentrations of chemicals.
What Can You Do?
All of this information about PFAS in fish sticks can be upsetting to many people. Now that you know the facts, what can you do to protect yourself?
Unfortunately, the FDA did not reveal the names of the fish stick brands they investigated. This would have been quite useful. Currently, we’re on our own.
Learning about PFAS is the key to avoiding PFAS in food. I wrote an article about which products contain PFAS.
Food may be tainted with PFAS in a variety of ways.
- growing food with soil and water contaminated with PFAS
- contaminated feed and water used for livestock
- PFAS-containing food packaging
- processing equipment that contains PFAS
Avoid these foods:
- large fish like salmon and tuna
- filter-feeding shellfish such as clams and oysters
- microwave popcorn
- foods that are packaged in PFAS containing materials
Another way to avoid PFAS is to test your water. Read my guide on testing your water for PFAS.
The FDA concluded their most recent round of testing for PFAS in fish sticks. Their results are troubling. A lot of fished sticks have concentrations of PFAS that are considered safe. The agency didn’t help the situation by not releasing the brand names of the fish sticks they tested.
There are a number of steps you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones from food that is contaminated with PFAS. This article provided thorough information on PFAS and fish sticks, as well as suggestions for reducing your PFAS intake.