Chemical in cafeteria food causes food causes concern


“We care is our slogan, good nutrition is our goal.” This is the motto of Fairfax County’s nutritional services. Every day, well over 100,000 students in FCPS at 170 schools or institutions line up to purchase or receive a lunch that is meant to propel them through the remaining three hours of the day. Portion and taste aside, the above slogan guarantees some semblance of nutritious and safe food. Upon parsing the ingredients list on Fairfax County’s website, visitors are inundated with a plethora of abbreviations, long names of chemicals and artificial preservatives. However, the “Potato Crunch Pollock Fillet 3.6 oz”, one of many offerings provided by Fairfax County for consumption contains one chemical in particular: Sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP).

With cost-cutting measures always a top priority for both corporations and schools, STPP is a natural choice for a fish additive. Allegations of consumer fraud and the ability for STPP to bloat fish with water, making it weigh more, have prompted calls for stores to indicate whether or not their fish has been treated with STPP, labelling it either wet or dry: wet referring to fish being soaked and dry the opposite. Moreover, allegations of possible health risks of STPP have further tainted its image. A study that could only be understood by an environmental scientist conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on STPP done in 1975 and then updated in 2006 revealed that a lethal dosage of STPP was 1000mg/kg. In other words, STPP was relatively non-toxic in moderation. This idea was confirmed to The Bear Facts by George Mason University professor in Environmental Science Dr. Robert Jonas.

“[The lethal dose] for this material is very large – that is very low toxicity,” he said.

However, Dr. Jonas also said that, “Everything is toxic at some dose.”

Along with this fact, there is little to no research done on whether or not STPP builds up in the body or if STPP has different effects on children.


“Also, some people have reported various levels of reaction to STPP,” executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition Marianne Cufone said, “from stomach problems following ingestion of it in a product to rashes. Repeated dose toxicity studies in rats showed that STPP at high doses induced retarded growth, anemia and renal calcification.”

Other studies indicated that STPP indeed does have many negative effects, not just on the consumers, but on those who process and distribute the fish as well. Cufone told The Bear Facts that STPP can lead to skin irritation to anyone who comes in direct contact with the chemical. Besides dangers to those who process fish treated with STPP,  problems have also arisen over company accountability. Food and Water Watch, an agricultural non-governmental organization, pointed to a fact sheet released in 2008. The term “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) is the designation the FDA assigned to STP; however, it is vague and often allows for loopholes. Companies have the ability to self-regulate without federal government oversight and give their product “self-affirmed” GRAS status. Along these lines, Viking indicates on its website that the fish fillet in question is produced with Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP), but again, the term GMP is self-assigned by the manufacturer and is not regulated by the government. This means that Viking is forced to self regulate, meaning it would be up to them to either regulate the usage of STPP, or or to disobey FDA rulings without the FDA knowing. Moreover, it would be very easy for the school to simply tell the students they are being served a meal that can be eaten in good conscience, but in reality, they cannot guarantee the safety of the food when it is up to a profit seeking corporation to be fully transparent.

Despite research suggesting the negative effects of STPP, Dr. Marianna Naum of the FDA’s office of Strategic Communications and Public Engagement equated the use of STPP in fish to “spices used for flavoring and vinegar used for pickling food” in an email to The Bear Facts. Similar logic was espoused from FCPS’s Office of Food and Nutritional Services.

“Many food additives have other industrial uses,” registered dietician for FCPS Ahn Sweeney said. “For example, the most common food additive known to man is table salt (sodium chloride) and is commonly used on highways to melt ice. This in no way detracts from its safe use in food.”

In Sweeney’s comments, she did not address non-conventional food additives such as STPP, simply repeating herself saying it was a safe food additive. Despite the denial, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that STPP is a suspected neurotoxin.  When asked to comment on this study, Dr. Naum gave no additional comment. STPP is also federally recognized as a possible harmful chemical. Federal agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognize STPP as an insecticide, fungicide and rodenticide, and California’s Occupational and Safety Health Act registers it as an air contaminant.

One of the major goals of the FDA is to regulate additives to food and to require labelling of certain chemicals on the product. STPP falls into a grey area because of corporate self regulation. While investigating STPP, the manufacturer of the fish fillet was contacted. Viking Foods: a subsidiary of High Liner Foods, a multi-national food service cooperation that provides food for schools, nursing home and prisons, produces the fish treated with STPP. On Viking’s website, it does not list STPP as an ingredient, yet the label provided by FCPS does. The Bear Facts asked for an explanation on this discrepancy from both Fairfax County’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services as well as Viking Foods. Viking was contacted, but it declined to call The Bear Facts back. FCPS’ office of Food and Nutrition also declined to comment on the discrepancy of labeling. The FDA does not require labelling of STPP, as companies self regulate chemical usage. This could pose a problem for students who have an unknown allergy to the chemical. The overall lack of labelling for STPP is inconsistent with FCPS’s current policy of labelling allergens and meat in foods.

Despite FCPS’s continual purchasing of food containing STPP, FCPS has attempted to reduce instances like this over the past few years.

“[FCPS] has reduced the number [of additives and artificial colors and flavors] by +90% and have strived to find products with ‘clean labels’ whenever possible”, Sweeney said. At the same time however, FCPS has to turn a profit on lunches, and STPP is an easy cost cutting measure for schools. It is a choice the school, and by extension the students, have to make.