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Smelly chemical in Kellogg's cereal was petroleum byproduct

Flickr photo by Kim Piper Werker

The chemical that caused a massive recall of Kellogg’s cereals in June has been identified: It’s a petroleum byproduct known as methylnaphthalene.

On June 25, Kellogg Co. recalled 28 million boxes of Corn Pops, Honey Smacks, Froot Loops and Apple Jacks. The move was in response to several customer complaints indicating the cereals were smelly and causing nausea and diarrhea in some people.

The cereal company issued a statement warning people to avoid eating the cereals because they didn’t “meet our quality standards,” adding that the complaints were "not caused by any harmful material found in the food.”

The cereal company reported that slightly elevated levels of a food-packaging substance were detected in the paraffin-wax box liners, and “sensitive” customers could expect a reaction.

A researcher at the Environmental Working Group called Kellogg's and was told by a nurse that the chemical was a hydrocarbon known as methylphthalene.

The chemical, which has two forms, is a component of crude oil and coal tar. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, between 1 million and 10 million pounds of the substance are produced every year, yet health agencies know very little about its safety. 

Here’s what they do know: In animal studies, the chemical has been shown to cause lung damage when inhaled, eaten or absorbed through the skin.

After the recall, the San Antonio Budget Grocery Examiner reported that consumers exposed to the chemical via Kellogg’s cereal typically fell ill within 15 minutes of eating the contaminated product.

A Kellogg’s company spokesman told Greenwire that the box liner is FDA-approved and "commonly used as a protective coating for foods including cheese, raw fruits and vegetables.”

He added that the company has said "the elevated levels of hydrocarbons are not present at harmful levels,” and Kellogg’s is working with its suppliers to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a food-safety bill giving the Food and Drug Administration the authority to issue mandatory recalls of food products, rather than relying on voluntary efforts from the industry. That legislation is still on hold as industry groups fight a bid by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to ban food-contact-chemical bisphenol A from food containers.

Filed under: Environment, Daily Report

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