Michigan is tiptoeing around PFAS in dairy agriculture

By Garret Ellison | MLive | July 30, 2019

Read full article by Garret Ellison (MLive)

“LANSING, MI — Kay Fritz let the cattle out of the bag in Boston.

Fritz, a toxicologist with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), told the National PFAS Conference audience that Michigan punted on testing an Allegan County dairy farm because it worried about killing the farmer’s business.

Testing found PFAS in the farm’s hay and pond water. Instead of testing milk from those cows, Fritz said that regulators, leery of repercussions seen in other states, decided the exposure wasn’t serious enough and ‘we weren’t going to go there.’

‘If you test the milk and you find PFAS, then you have to tell the farmer,’ said Fritz, whose remarks are available on video. ‘Then the farmer has to tell the co-op that takes the milk. Then, they say “Oh no, we don’t want any PFAS milk.” Then you put this farmer out of business immediately, as we have seen in New Mexico’…

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration divulged new data in June showing elevated PFAS levels in foods like fish, chicken, turkey, beef, hot dogs, vegetables and, oddly, chocolate cake. The national testing data follows discoveries of contaminated dairy farms in New Mexico and Maine and prompted calls for wider PFAS testing in food supplies.

In Michigan, food testing has lagged significantly behind drinking water testing despite confirmation that surface water and animal feed from at least two farms are impacted by contamination…

Officials say that no widespread or strategically targeted dairy testing has been conducted at the roughly 1,350 farms, co-ops, processing plants or other points in the state supply chain. That’s left a shortage in data on how PFAS may have impacted a large swath of Michigan agriculture.

‘Food testing is an area that deserves a lot more attention,’ said Erik Olson, a PFAS policy expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. ‘A fair number of scientific papers look at PFAS in foods, mostly thinking it’s transferred from packaging. I think we’re gradually starting to find out it’s from environmental contamination that ends up in animal products’…

The chemical PFOA was found at 270 parts per trillion (ppt) in the farm’s hay. State officials say they don’t really know what threat level that number poses, but think it’s low. The farm’s pond water tested for PFOS and PFOA combined at 1,900-ppt, which is much higher than the state’s surface water limit, but the farmer had fenced-off the pond a year prior…

In Kalamazoo County, pond water used to grow feed at a Richland Township cattle and row crop farm tested at 316-ppt for the compound PFOS. The contamination is from an old plating shop, which created a severe plume that’s polluting drinking water wells southwest of Gull Lake.

The Richland area results have not yet prompted farm product testing. On June 26, MDARD sent a letter to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture requesting coordinated assistance from both agencies ‘in working with the farm owner to further investigate and advise on the proper path moving forward.’

Officials say some testing is expected later this fall.

MLive asked to speak with Fritz, but was referred to Kevin Besey, the food and dairy division director at MDARD. Besey said Michigan isn’t testing dairy products because federal authorities haven’t developed a health guidance level for them and testing is meaningless without one.

‘We don’t have any standards to compare the results to if we got them back,’ said Besey, who defended the state’s decision to not test dairy products in Otsego and elsewhere. ‘The FDA has no numbers for milk or any specific food product.’

The closest thing to a federal PFAS standard right now is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory level of 70-ppt for the compounds PFOS and PFOA in drinking water. That level is not enforceable and is increasingly seen as inadequate by activists and some states — including Michigan — which are using an analysis by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to develop far lower state-specific standards for drinking water.

Besey said 70-ppt isn’t a valid milk testing benchmark because it’s meant solely for drinking water. Milk and other food products are consumed at different rates by different people and that will subsequently result in different thresholds for safe consumption, he said…

Although the FDA may not have standards for testing PFAS in milk, some states do. Maine has a 210-ppt screening level derived from the EPA dosage calculation used to develop its drinking water advisory level. Michigan is ‘not considering developing our own standards,’ Besey said, and would consult with the FDA to interpret the results from any food testing.

The FDA has found PFAS in national testing, both recently and about 10 years ago, when it collected milk samples around the country, including from one location in mid-Michigan.

According to a 2012 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the agency analyzed 12 raw and 49 retail milk samples and found no PFAS except for one sample taken from a bulk tank on a farm that fertilized using contaminated biosolids. The PFOS result was 160-ppt. The results were ‘consistent with previous reports of PFC concentrations in milk,’ study authors wrote.

However, minimum detection limits at laboratories have dropped significantly for PFAS testing since the 2012 study was published. Anything under 130-ppt would have been counted as a ‘non-detect’ at the time for PFOS, a compound which persists in the environment and readily magnifies up the food chain.

More recently, the FDA tested dairy products from a farm in Clovis, New Mexico, which used water contaminated by fire training at the nearby Cannon Air Force Base. The 2018-19 test results were high and prompted the farm to shut down. One sample tested at 4,710-ppt for PFOS and 7,072-ppt for Total PFAS, or the sum of all detected compounds…

‘There’s evidence out there that, on a population level, people are being exposed through the food they eat,’ said Patrick MacRoy of the Environmental Health Strategy Center in Maine. ‘We haven’t really begun to dive into why and how.’

Like Michigan and most other states, Maine has encouraged the spreading of municipal sewage sludge on farms as fertilizer. The practice is blamed for contaminating a dairy herd and shutting down a farm near Arundel in southern Maine. Following that 2016 discovery, the state began some limited raw and retail milk testing. None of the 29 samples tested above the minimum detection limit of 50-ppt, prompting relieved statements from state regulators.

MacRoy doesn’t share the optimism. Basing the state’s milk screening level on the EPA reference dose ignores all the new toxicological analyses that are pushing safety thresholds down for drinking water in Michigan and elsewhere, he said. And testing food off grocery store shelves potentially masks problems at individual farms.

‘Retail samples contain milk from multiple farms,’ MacRoy said. ‘You really don’t know if you have some farms producing high (PFAS) levels, that were diluted, in effect, with clean milk’…

MacRoy has been pushing Maine regulators to test products and soil at farms where biosolid sludge has been used. He said Maine agriculture department officials have responded with concern about putting farms out of business if PFAS is detected…

In Michigan, agricultural testing for PFAS so far has been limited to fields that were fertilized using wastewater sludge. Thus far, municipal sewage plants in Lapeer, Ionia and Bronson have stopped applying biosolids to land after high pollutant levels were found. Each facility was receiving highly contaminated effluent from the metal-finishing industry…

Laura Campbell, manager of the Michigan Farm Bureau Agriculture Ecology Department, said the state on conference calls and in meetings has said it’s ‘really reluctant to start collecting a whole bunch of numbers when they don’t know what to do with them’…

‘They also want to be sensitive to — and I think it’s very worth saying — that fear of contamination is just as dangerous, if not more dangerous to Michigan agriculture than even going through the process of testing for and determining whether or not there is contamination,’ Campbell said.

‘If people start to think there’s PFAS in the food supply and now are afraid to buy food in Michigan, that’s going to kill the agriculture industry faster than any actual incidence in which we might find it. The department is very away of that. They want to be proactive and test, but they also don’t want people to panic,’ she said…

Campbell thinks escalation of agriculture testing will happen at a national level when major grocery retailers like Walmart begin calling for it…

In Maine, MacRoy said the agriculture industry has argued that widespread testing at farms isn’t needed because identified problems are, essentially, infrequent one-offs.

‘We’ve heard a lot of that from industry,’ he said.

‘Unfortunately, we don’t know the extent of the problem until we actually do some testing. The couple cases we do know about don’t stand out as being unique in their practices.'”

This content provided by the PFAS Project.