Some farm equipment may be a source of toxic chemicals in dairy, study finds

By Jim Cornall

- Last updated on GMT

The Environmental Health Strategy Center, said it was shocked that the most toxic phthalate, DEHP, is still used in some food processing.
The Environmental Health Strategy Center, said it was shocked that the most toxic phthalate, DEHP, is still used in some food processing.

Related tags Phthalates Food Food safety

A new report by the Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging has both bad news and good news for lovers of dairy products.

The report, “Sources of Phthalates in Dairy Farm Equipment,”​ was researched and written by Pure Strategies, a sustainability consulting firm, which reviewed industry documents and interviewed several experts.

Pure Strategies researched and wrote the report under contract to the public health nonprofit the Environmental Health Strategy Center. In addition, the Ecology Center, also a public health nonprofit, screened 20 samples of dairy farm equipment for phthalates.

For the samples that screened positive for phthalates, the Ecology Center contracted with a laboratory to identify the specific phthalates.

Safer options available

The report confirms that some plastic and rubber equipment used to milk cows still contains hormone-disrupting chemicals known as ortho-phthalates.

Previous studies have shown that phthalates can escape into fatty foods such as dairy during processing, packaging and preparation.

However, investigators found dairy equipment suppliers already offer many non-phthalate alternatives.

Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, said, “Shockingly, this report found that the most toxic phthalate, DEHP, is still used in some food processing, even though it’s banned in Europe and in children’s toys in the US.

“With the U.S. Food & Drug Administration asleep at the switch, manufacturers must phase out all remaining uses of phthalates in order to protect both consumers and dairy farmers.”

Tracy Gregoire, healthy children project coordinator at the Learning Disabilities Association of America agreed, saying parents who buy dairy products and other food for their families want greater assurance of safety.

“Industrial chemicals that put children at risk for IQ deficits and learning and behavior problems don’t belong in our food supply,”​ Gregoire said.

Further studies needed

The report said further study is necessary to determine which specific types and brands of dairy farm equipment still contain phthalates or are non-phthalate.

It said two major dairy equipment suppliers are now reportedly 100% phthaltate free, DeLaval (Sweden) and GEA from Germany.

Pure Strategies said flexible tubing, used to transfer milk from dairy cows to holding tanks, may contain phthalates.

It said one manufacturer of flexible PVC tubing, Finger Lakes Extrusion Corporation, based in New York, still uses phthalates. It added the Finger Lakes dairy tubing (Glitex brand) contains DEHP, the most toxic phthalate still in widespread use, at a concentration of 30% to 40% by weight.

Finger Lakes told Pure Strategies, however, that a non-phthalate alternative is under development.

Finger Lakes response

Finger Lakes vice president Erica Wright told DairyReporter the company only sells PVC tubing into the dairy market and therefore can only comment on that portion of the report. 

Wright said the only tests completed on PVC tubes were to determine what types of plasticizer were used. 

Performance differences

“No testing to determine the performance differences between a DEHP plasticized tube and a non-phthalate plasticized tube were completed,”​ Wright said. 

“However, they claim that the non-phthalate options are just as good – how are they able to conclude this?  In fact, based on our testing (both lab and in the field) there are major performance and chemical compatibility differences.

“The section that discusses Finger Lakes Extrusion Glitex material is accurate,”​ she added. 

“What we are currently supplying to our customers does contain DEHP, a long tested and trusted plasticizer.  Due to the changing regulatory environment in Europe, we began researching and testing non-DEHP options about five years ago. 

“The dairy industry is the most difficult tubing application that we supply to by far.  There are multiple cleaning cycles per day with hot water, acid and soapy solutions, cold barn temperatures and hot fatty milk. 

“Due to this, we have tested and turned down over 15 different resin options.  We know that there is no exact replacement for a DEHP plasticized tube, but are looking for something that is close. 

“We have narrowed our search to one compound and are hopeful that in the next few months we will receive positive feedback from the barns across the country that are currently testing it for us,”​ Wright noted. 

“We have also tested our competitors non-DEHP ‘replacements’ and were not at all satisfied with their performance.  There are so many different barn setups, cleaning cycles, water temperatures and flex points that what works in one barn may fail miserably in another.”

Lacking information

Wright said she feels the report is lacking a lot of information to help dairy farmers and their suppliers make informed decisions about whether to change the type of tubing that they are using in their barns. 

“This report refers to those that have not phased out their phthalate offerings as ‘laggers’ and we feel that is a very inaccurate statement. 

“Those that are taking their time to find the right material to best serve their customers are good businesses that show patience and exemplary customer service.  Let us not forget that there aren’t any regulations in the United States as of this date that outlaw the use of phthalates on dairy farms.” 

Patrick MacRoy, deputy director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, confirmed this, telling DairyReporter, In terms of the regulatory perspective, my understanding is that FDA has not set a specific limit for DEHP migration or level in the final product. Its use is authorized as a plasticizer in food contact materials.”

Teat cup liners

Teat cup liners (inflations) attach to the cow’s udder and draw the milk through a pumping action.

Of the two rubber inflations tested, only one, the NuPulse brand, contained phthalates. The tested NuPulse rubber inflation contained two phthalates, DIDP and DINP, at a concentration of more than 10%.

The report notes that silicone inflations appear to be an alternative free of both phthalates and adipates, whose hazards are not yet well known.

The report recommends additional investigation to determine which other suppliers of dairy farm equipment still use phthalates and which are now non-phthalate.

E-Zee NuPulse did not respond to DairyReporter’s request for comment.

Many sources

MacRoy also told DairyReporter it is likely that phthalates measured in the final product on the store shelf come from many sources throughout the supply chain.

“The inflations and tubes are probably not the only source,”​ MacRoy admitted. 

“Since many of the same phthalates could be used in many different pieces of equipment, there isn’t a way to directly attribute a particular chemical or level in the final product to a particular piece of equipment.  

“However, there is research, going all the way back into the 1970s, and continuing in the last decade, that shows that the phthalates from both tubes and inflations do leach into milk.  Tests have been done both in a lab (soaking hoses in milk, essentially) and, more importantly, from actual use, and both found phthalates in the milk as a result.”   

Dangers of phthalates

Phthalates are a widely used class of hormone-disrupting chemicals added to plastics, rubber, adhesives, printer inks, sealants, coatings and fragrance.

Human exposure to phthalates has been linked to lower sperm quality and infertility, and to lower IQ and learning problems in children.

In 2017, federal scientists concluded that up to 725,000 American women of childbearing age are exposed daily to five phthalates at levels that may harm the health of a developing fetus.

Most people are exposed to phthalates mainly from the food they eat. Phthalates have been shown to enter the food supply from every point along the supply chain – at the farm, during processing, from packaging and during food preparation.

Kraft response

The Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging also commissioned last year’s testing of cheese products for phthalates, which were found in 29 of 30 cheese products tested at a qualified independent lab.

DairyReporter carried a story after that report, when Kraft emphasized its products were safe​.

At the time, Kraft told this website, “The trace amounts that were reported in this limited study are more than 1,000 times lower than levels that scientific authorities have identified as acceptable. Our products are safe for consumers to enjoy.”​

Banned products

In 2011, Europe banned most phthalates in food contact materials made of plastic or rubber for use with fatty foods (including dairy products) and infant foods.

However, the US Food and Drug Administration still allows the use of 28 phthalates in food contact materials.

The Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging is a national alliance of nonprofit organizations concerned about human health, food safety, and social justice who are working together to persuade major food manufacturers to identify and eliminate phthalates and other chemicals of high concern from the American food supply.