On 20 February 2020, 9News released an article titled “Toxic secret that could be contaminating your meat.” The article raised concern about cattle with high levels of PFAS being sold into the Australian market and that this could be a danger to consumers. The article suggested that a concerned cattle breeder was given the wrong advice about how to reduce the levels of PFAS in stock. The article also suggested that Australia's position on the health effects of PFAS is not current and it is inconsistent with international advice. The article was incorrect and further information is provided for any interested party as per the below.
Risks to consumers from food products:
Australia has an effective, robust food regulation system in place to ensure the safety of our food. In Australia, maximum levels for contaminants are set by Food Standards Australia New Zealand, when they are required, to manage dietary exposure to chemical contaminants through food.
Current evidence suggests no regulation of the three types of PFAS chemical contaminants of concern (PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS) in the food supply is required. Scientific evidence suggests dietary exposure to these PFAS through the general food supply is likely to be low. Therefore, no maximum limits have been set for PFAS in food by Australian or international regulators and there are currently no restrictions on domestic or international trade in agricultural products.
Whilst the risk to the general population is low, dietary advice has been issued to some farmers in PFAS investigation areas who eat their own produce as a large portion of their diet and may also be exposed to other sources of PFAS. This precautionary advice encourages these farmers to consume produce from multiple sources, and in some cases to limit consumption of home-grown produce, to reduce their overall exposure to PFAS.
Most consumers purchase products from the supermarket that are sourced from a wide range of providers. This means that consumers in the wider market are not expected to regularly consume produce that may have increased levels of PFAS. For the general population, occasionally ingesting produce with low levels of PFAS is not considered to be a public health concern.
Advice given to farmers:
The article alleged that the Department of Primary Industries (NSW) advised a cattle breeder living on PFAS-contaminated land that:
"if cattle stay on the land and are given clean town water instead of contaminated ground water, PFAS levels would half within 165 days."
However, the Department of Primary Industries (NSW) has confirmed their full advice to the farmer stated that by "providing an alternate water supply not affected by PFAS and restricting stock access to waterways", the cattle’s exposure to PFAS should reduce.
This advice is based on peer-reviewed scientific studies that show that PFAS levels in cattle reduce when the animal is no longer exposed to PFAS.
The article proved the NSW advice was correct as when cattle in 9News’ own investigation were moved away from the site with elevated PFAS levels and were supplied with alternative water and food, their PFAS levels reduced. These findings support advice published by the Department of Primary Industries (NSW), that:
"When animals have access to alternative water and food, their PFAS levels reduce over time".
Australia's health advice:
Australia's advice is consistent with that of government advice from comparable nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom. Though wording may vary between jurisdictions, there is consistent acknowledgement that a number of health effects have been associated with PFAS exposure. However, these health effects are generally small and have not been shown to be clinically significant.
Australia has strong regulatory systems that protect human health from any risks posed by industrial chemicals. The Australian Government is monitoring and supporting scientific research into potential health impacts of PFAS to ensure that regulatory responses are appropriate and evidence-based.
The Australian Government updates its information on the potential health effects of PFAS as new information becomes available and continues to review scientific evidence both nationally and internationally in relation to the human health effects of PFAS through its established monitoring systems.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of over 4,000 manufactured chemicals. Some PFAS are very effective at resisting heat, stains, grease and water, so have been used globally in a wide range of applications including stain and water protection for carpets, furniture and apparel; paper coating (including for food packaging); metal plating; photographic materials; cosmetics and sunscreens; medical devices; and fire-fighting foams. The most often discussed, and of most concern currently are PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS. There are global efforts to phase these chemicals out, including in Australia.