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FDA Whistleblower Speaks Out About Mercury in Our Food

Food Integrity Campaign | August 29, 2018

Whistleblowers tend to be really tough, determined people. Former FIC client, Dr. Renee Dufault, is no exception. Ten years ago, Renee Dufault retired early from her position at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after she was blocked from publishing her research findings about mercury in high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

FIC recently caught up with her to discuss the research and publishing she’s been doing…only to find our interview’s timing coincided with Hurricane Lane bearing down on her home in Hawaii. When I offered to reschedule the conversation, Dr. Dufault laughed and said that it was important for more people to hear about her research. Impressed, I agreed, and we had an eye-opening conversation about how heavy metals end up in our food supply and affect our health.


Research: Building the Case

When I asked Dr. Dufault the most important thing she’s done since blowing the whistle and leaving the FDA, she immediately responded, “Publish research.” She published the findings that the FDA didn’t want her to publish about mercury in HFCS, a common ingredient in processed foods. Canadian researchers soon followed up with a study finding similar levels of mercury in corn syrups sold in Canada.

Dr. Dufault’s next study involved the development of a mercury toxicity model. This model explains how mercury can suppress genes involved in developmental problems such as autism and ADHD, especially in the absence of certain micronutrients, like calcium, in a person’s diet. Other toxic metals, such as lead, interact with genes affecting brain development in a similar way.  Dr. Dufault has expanded the toxicity model to include them as well.

Dr. Dufault’s research has also demonstrated that eating less processed food and more whole fruits, vegetables, and nuts results in lower levels of mercury in a person’s blood. These lower levels of mercury coincide with lower levels of sugar which reduces one’s risk of developing diabetes. Dr. Dufault has worked with communities to educate them about how to change eating patterns to reduce the risk of mercury building up in the body and reduce the risk of its toxic effects. The Smithsonian Institute even invited Dr. Dufault to present her findings, which she notes as a highlight of her career.

Dr. Dufault noted that she’s “been out there screaming about this for years,” and now more and more researchers are paying attention. All along, journals in the European Union have been far more receptive to publishing her work than those in the United States, reflecting different policies and attitudes about food processing and food safety.


Policy: Pushing for Change

When asked what policies have—or haven’t—changed regarding metal residues in food, Dr. Dufault sighed heavily. She has spent years building a body of research linking mercury in food to its build-up in the blood and genetic triggers for cognitive impairments, but the science hasn’t motivated policymakers to take action. Only lawsuits from environmental organizations have either brought information to light or led to recommendations for regulatory change, which then get scrambled when a new president comes into office.

Dr. Dufault has found hope in state-level changes. Her home state of Hawaii has been on the forefront of progressive policies to reduce chemical use in the food system and she works with residents there to reduce their intake of processed foods.


The Book: Spreading the Word 

Dr. Dufault’s work as a scientist and health educator led her to publish a book, Unsafe at Any Meal: What the FDA Does Not Want You to Know About the Food You Eat. It takes longer than this blog post to describe the depth and breadth of her research and its implications for our health and for our food safety system in the U.S.

Dr. Dufault explains, “We have the ability to detect substances in our food now at very low level[s]. We have the tools in place to have a safer food supply. We need to use them. Our food safety system is like outdated software. It needs an upgrade, and we can do it.” More pointedly, regarding the risks of heavy metals to children, she adds, “Our children are the most important resource that we have. If we don’t invest in our children, their health, and their brains, then we don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.”

Check out Dr. Dufault’s non-profit work at the Food Ingredient and Health Research Institute or her book for more information.

Follow the Food Integrity Campaign on Facebook or Twitter for more stories of whistleblowers willing to dig deep and speak out to defend our food supply. (And, I’m happy to say, Renee made it through the storm safely.)