Petition: FDA Must Stop Allowing Four Cancer-Causing Chemicals in Food

Petitions seek to eliminate carcinogens added to decaf coffee, extracts of spices used for taste and color, and for other food-related purposes

January 11, 2024
Cecile Brown, Environmental Defense Fund, (202) 271-6534,

(Washington, D.C. – January 11, 2024) Today the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published an announcement that it filed a food additive petition [PDF, 1MB] and a color additive petition [PDF, 783KB] that call on the agency to rescind its approvals for four carcinogens in food. The petitions were submitted by Environmental Defense Fund, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, Center for Environmental Health, Environmental Working Group (EWG), and Lisa Lefferts, an environmental health consultant. 

“FDA has been disregarding the law by permitting these long-established carcinogens to be added to food,” said Maria Doa, Senior Director for Chemicals Policy at Environmental Defense Fund. “We hope that recent changes in FDA leadership will fix the agency’s broken system for overseeing chemicals added to the food supply." 

“I think most people would be shocked to learn that known human carcinogens like benzene and trichloroethylene are food additives that can legally be added to food,” said Lisa Lefferts, a scientist and coauthor of the petition. “The Food and Drug Administration should have prohibited these uses decades ago.” 

For over 60 years, the law has clearly stated that food and color additives that induce cancer in humans or animals cannot be deemed “safe” for use in food. Yet FDA has kept approvals on the books for chemicals that were found to cause cancer decades ago.  In fact, benzene, trichloroethylene, methylene chloride and ethylene chloride were found to cause cancer in animal studies conducted by FDA’s sister agencies, the National Cancer Institute and the National Toxicology Program, decades ago. 

These chemicals are known or anticipated to cause multiple forms of cancer, including liver, kidney, lung, leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The carcinogenic solvents and their food uses include: 

  • Benzene, allowed in hops extracts (used in beer production and supplements).  

  • Trichloroethylene (TCE), allowed in decaffeinated coffee, certain extracts of spices used for taste and coloring, and hops extracts. 

  • Methylene chloride, allowed in decaffeinated coffee, certain extracts of spices used for taste and coloring, in ink used to mark produce, and hops extracts. 

  • Ethylene dichloride, allowed in certain extracts of spices used for taste and coloring, hops extracts, in water used to wash sugar beets, and to dilute pesticides. 

In 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to eliminate all uses of TCE and most uses of methylene chloride regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), due to their risks for cancer and other serious health harms. But food uses regulated by FDA under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act remain. 

In addition to inducing cancer, the chemicals cause other health effects, including fetal cardiac malformations and other developmental effects (TCE), decreased blood cell counts (benzene), and effects on the kidney (ethylene dichloride) and liver (methylene chloride). 

The widespread use of some of these chemicals is of particular concern for pregnant people and developing fetuses. Independent testing in 2020 and 2022 by the Clean Label Project detected methylene chloride in several common brands of decaf coffee. 

“It should be concerning to everyone that pregnant women and those with health issues looking to cut back on caffeine are unknowingly sipping trace amounts of methylene chloride in their decaf coffee,” said Jaclyn Bowen, executive director of the Clean Label Project. “FDA should prohibit methylene chloride, and companies should use safer available methods of decaffeination. 

Quotes from petitioners: 

“Allowing cancer-causing chemicals in our food doesn’t just impact consumers’ health, it also impacts the health of communities and workers who manufacture, store, and transport these chemicals,” said Sue Chiang, Food Program Director, Center for Environmental Health.   

“Cancer-causing chemicals have no place in our food,” said Scott Faber, Senior Vice President for Government Affairs for EWG. “Banning these cancer-causing solvents is an important test of FDA’s new-found commitment to making chemical safety a priority.” 

“FDA has acknowledged that these chemicals cause cancer, but still permits them in food,” said Lisette van Vliet, Senior Policy Manager from Breast Cancer Prevention Partners.  “That’s unacceptable.  It’s way past time for the FDA to protect the public from chemicals that increase our risk of cancer and other serious health problems.”


Cecile Brown, Environmental Defense Fund, (202) 271-6534, 

Erika Wilhelm, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, 415-539-5005, 

Emily DiFrisco, Center for Environmental Health, 510-655-3900 x 307, 

Iris Myers, Environmental Working Group, 202-939-9126,

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