December 24, 2012. Plano, TX. When a billion dollar, multi-national corporation like PepsiCo gets outsmarted and humiliated by a 15 year-old girl, there has to be something more. And in the case of Mississippi’s Sarah Kavanagh, boy was there. What started as a curious internet search on one of Pepsi’s mysterious ingredients has uncovered a terrifying fact – corporations, not the FDA, are legally approving their own food additives.
Teenager takes on Pepsi, Coke and Snapple, and may win.
PepsiCo vs. 15 year-old Sarah Kavanagh
Admittedly argumentative as evidenced by her participation in her school’s debate team, Sarah Kavanagh also plays sports like volleyball. “And just like most people, I care about my health,” she explains, “So, as I was sitting at home the other day drinking an Orange Gatorade, I decided to look up some of the ingredients.”
The 15 year-old goes on to detail, “The last ingredient is ‘brominated vegetable oil’, which has been banned in Japan and the European Union. That means, #1 it’s not necessary to make Gatorade, and #2 there is enough information out there that entire countries have banned this chemical.”
When contacted by the New York Times for a reply to young Miss Kavanagh’s concerns, a PepsiCo spokesman only recited the standard company line. Pepsi’s Jeff Dahncke replied, “As standard practice, we constantly evaluate our formulas and ingredients to ensure they comply with federal regulations and meet the high quality standards our consumers and athletes expect – from functionality to great taste.”
That reply didn’t answer Sarah’s question asking why PespiCo insists on putting banned, chemical flame-retardants in their drinks. So Sarah started a Change.org petition asking PepsiCo to remove brominated vegetable oil from its products. She insists BVO is widely considered a dangerous chemical. It’s also widely used by food manufacturers and is included in Pepsi’s Gatorade and Mountain Dew, Coca-Cola’s Powerade, Fanta Orange and Fresca, and Snapple Group’s Dr Pepper.
Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO)
“According to Scientific American, BVO has been patented as a flame retardant and is found in some beverages including some flavors of Gatorade,” the online petition reads, “It is ‘under intense scrutiny because research has shown that they are building up in people’s bodies, including breast milk, around the world’. The same article also mentions that there are ‘links to impaired neurological development, reduced fertility, early onset of puberty and altered thyroid hormones.”
The Times confirms Kavanagh’s findings about BVO. Not only is it used as the flame-retardant in things like baby clothes and upholstered furniture, but, as the paper writes, ‘limited studies of the effects of brominated vegetable oil in animals and in humans found buildups of bromine in fatty tissues. Rats that ingested large quantities of the substance in their diets developed heart lesions.’
FDA never tested BVO
As the above referenced NY Times report details, brominated vegetable oil has never been directly tested by the FDA for its safety. Astonishingly, of the 10,000 chemicals the FDA has approved for human consumption in food, the agency has never tested or studied 3,000 of them. Even worse, roughly 1,000 never even came before the FDA at all. It seems the Food and Drug Administration has two types of approval methods for chemicals added into food, as mandated by Congress. One is to study and test new chemical additives. The other is to automatically approve any chemical a corporation shows is “generally recognized as safe”.
The Times warns that food corporations are completely bypassing our nation’s food safety laws. ‘A company can create a new additive, publish safety data about it on its web site and pay a law firm or consulting firm to vet it,’ they explain. Pew Charitable Trusts’ Director Tom Neltner told the paper, “If you take a new chemical and put it into, say, a tennis racket, you have to notify the EPA before you put it in. But if you put it into food and can document it as recognized as safe by some one expert, you don’t have to tell the FDA.”
Since BVO has been in use since the 1930’s, the FDA originally recognized the chemical as ‘generally recognized as safe’. But in 1970, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association revoked its own approval of the chemical. The FDA took a half-measure in response and took BVO off of its list of ‘generally recognized as safe’ chemicals. But it didn’t revoke the chemical’s FDA approval.
Due to the questions and concerns of consumers and scientists alike, the FDA asked the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Assoc. to conduct testing on BVO. From 1971 to 1974, the organization tested BVO on animals and turned in various reports to the government agency. In 1977, the FDA ruled that BVO could keep its approval as a food additive so long as it was only used in very small quantities – 15 parts per million. Those were the last official tests ever sanctioned by the FDA of brominated vegetable oil.
The Times also asked Michael F. Jacobson, co-founder and Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, for his group’s opinion of BVO. Citing the lack of research on the chemical, he said, “The testing of BVO is abysmal.” Offering up one example, Jacobson noted that the longest study he could find on BVO was 4 months, while most food additives are studied for at least 2 years.
PepsiCo vs. 15 year-old Sarah Kavanagh…and her 200,486 supporters
That’s how many people have signed Sarah Kavanagh’s petition on Change.org asking Pepsi to remove BVO from its Gatorade products. For its part, the multi-billion dollar corporation has shifted from patronizing a little girl and her sincere request, to launching a campaign of damage control. Score one for the 15 year-old.
“We take consumer safety and product integrity seriously,” a statement from PepsiCo assured its customers, “And we can assure you that Gatorade is safe.” The Chicago Tribune was the next media outlet to question Pepsi, the FDA and outside experts. According to the FDA, BVO has been approved “on an interim basis”. But as the NY Times reports, BVO has been approved “on an interim basis” since 1977. The Tribune also points out that the FDA now says BVO is approved but only at levels lower than 5 parts per million. That’s lower than the 15 parts per million the Times says the FDA originally chose back in the 1970’s.
When asked by the Tribune for a comment, Geeta Maker-Clark, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, said, “I do believe BVO should be examined more closely by the FDA…Bromine does bind to fat in the body and stay there. It is an endocrine disruptor, and the fact is many people drink excessive amounts of soda.”
Another expert contacted by the Tribune is Bob Boutin, President of Knechtel Labs, a confectionary and food company. He warns that BVO isn’t even one single substance and is in use in more than one form. He says it is an ‘umbrella term’ that can be applied to a variety of oils, each of which can be treated in a variety of ways, creating a wide variety of finished compounds used for different purposes, including food additives.
If recent history is any indication, 15 year-old Sarah Kavanagh should win her fight with Pepsi and its Gatorade products. Similar petitions on Change.org asking McDonald’s and other restaurants to stop using ‘pink slime’ were successful, bankrupting the company that manufactured it. Starbucks also stopped using ‘cochineal extract’ after another Change.org petition raised awareness. That petition only garnered 8,000 signatures before the coffee giant acted. By comparison, Sarah Kavanagh’s petition asking Pepsi to stop using BVO had already acquired 200,486…and growing.
To sign the BVO petition to Pepsi, visit Change.org.