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HFCS and Mercury: An Interview with an FDA Whistleblower

I first heard of Renee Dufault through Mother Jones print magazine back in June. In their “Children of the Corn” article, they named her as the researcher who first uncovered mercury in high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

Even before this news came out, you may have already cut the HFCS from your family’s diet. But manufacturers are sneaky. There is the corn sweetener in things you wouldn’t even suspect: ketchup, yogurt, salad dressing. Actually, condiments are the biggest culprits when it comes to the mercury/high fructose corn syrup link.

So what did this brilliant researcher receive for her tireless work? Surely, a commendation, right? Nope. Renee Dufault is currently suffering through early retirement in Hawaii.

She was kind enough to discuss her research with me and the implications of mercury in high fructose corn syrup.


–Why were you testing HFCS for mercury in the first place?

In Spring 2004, I was invited by River Network to give a presentation at their annual conference on the mercury cycle. As I was preparing my power point presentation, I started an informal investigation to find the missing mercury from the chlor-alkali industry. I interviewed a guy at EPA who told me Vulcan Chemical company was the only company on record to find their missing mercury. Vulcan Chemical got out the mercury cell chlor-alkali business shortly after my investigation but shared information with me on where their missing mercury went. Some of it went into virtually all of their products.

I interviewed Art Dungan at the Chlorine Institute and he told me that there is always some mercury residue in chlor-alkali products made from mercury cells. He also told me that mercury cell chlor-alkali products were approved for use in food manufacturing and provided me with the Codex Standards that said how much mercury was allowed in the chlor-alkali products used to manufacture foods. That got me to thinking about which food manufacturing processes use mercury cell chlor-alkali chemicals. Vulcan Chemical had a web page that said they sold their products to the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) industry.

I interviewed a manufacturer of HFCS and was told they preferred to use the mercury grade chlor-alkali or membrane chlor-alkali product in their process because both enhanced food product shelf life. The HFCS manufacturer was appalled when he found out his HFCS could be contaminated with mercury.

–Tell me about the results of your tests. What are the implications for the average American, which I understand gets 1 out of every 10 calories from HFCS?

Long term chronic (low dose) exposure to mercury (any form) will impact the body. How it impacts the body is under discussion. My collaborators and I have another paper coming out that will provide details. That is all I will be able to say at the moment.

–Who might be most affected by mercury in HFCS and why?

Children and babies in the womb will be most affected by mercury exposure in food be it via HFCS, sodium benzoate, food dyes, or any other product manufactured with mercury containing chlor-alkali chemicals. There is no way to know which food manufacturers use mercury cell chlor-alkali products or chemicals produced using mercury cell chlor-alkali chemicals.

The Corn Refiners Association claims they no longer use mercury cell chlor-alkali products in their manufacturing processes. Current international and U.S. regulations allow the use of mercury cell chlor-alkali products in food manufacturing. If HFCS contained mercury for many years as a result of the use of mercury cell chlor-alkali chemicals by the HFCS manufacturers, I believe there was no ill intent on the part of the corn refiners. They were in compliance with current regulations.

Nobody thought to look for mercury in food products manufactured with mercury cell chlor-alkali products.

–Manufacturers are still allowed to call their products “natural” even if they contain HFCS. In fact, after the news came out that there was mercury on high fructose corn syrup, president of the Corn Refiner’s Association, Audrae Erickson said,

They should know that high fructose corn syrup is safe. In 1983, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration formally listed high fructose corn syrup as safe for use in food and reaffirmed that decision in 1996. High fructose corn syrup contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives and meets FDA’s requirements for the use of the term ‘natural’.

What do you think of this?

HFCS is produced using chemicals through a refinery process. In my opinion it is not a natural product because it is made by man using an elaborate man-made refinery process that uses chemicals.

–Can you tell me about the lab you used for the testing?

I sent HFCS samples to several different labs and they all got the same results. The samples were collected in 2005 when some of the corn refiners were still obviously using mercury cell chlor-alkali chemicals in their manufacturing process.

–What was the FDA’s response to the results, first immediately, and then for your career with the department overall?

The FDA as an agency had mixed feelings about my results. Some individuals were not happy with my findings. I think they were afraid. Some individuals at FDA supported my work and applauded my efforts. There may have been some things going on behind the scenes to put an end to my work but I do not know this for sure. I did not have to retire early but I was discouraged from doing the field work that I liked doing and in fact told not to continue some of the research that I was doing. I found myself with lots of time on my hands. I do not twiddle my thumbs well. I need to be intellectually challenged and I need to feel like I am making a difference. I was no longer able to meet these basic needs doing my FDA job.

–There has been considerable criticism of the FDA following recent food recalls. From your experience there, what most needs to change in that department?

The FDA might better serve the public if FDA employee salaries were not paid by industry user fees. Continued use of industry user fees to pay for the salaries of FDA employees (FTEs) to review drug and device applications or inspect food manufacturers will ensure that FDA continues to operate in the current mode. Congress has allowed and in fact mandated that FDA operate in the current mode.

If taxpayers want a different kind of FDA, then they will need to make Congress change the way FDA is funded. In my opinion, FDA should be solely funded by taxpayer money. Who does Congress work for? If every person of voting age demanded that their Congressperson change the way FDA operates, then you can bet we would see some changes in priority.

We won’t see any changes unless Congress provides enough taxpayer money to pay for FDA operations and we won’t see any changes as long as industry is paying FDA “user fees.” User fees came about because pharmaceutical companies complained that their drug applications were not being approved fast enough. There are plenty of people at FDA that feel the same way that I do.

–Other thoughts?

These are my thoughts:

We need to follow Sweden’s lead and ban the use of mercury in manufacturing processes and products. Congress needs to provide FDA with substantial funding to conduct its own sorely needed research into product safety.

Image: terren in Virginia and Robert Couse-Baker, both on Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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  1. So why is she in early retirment? Because she is a whistle blower or I’m guessing, she didn’t follow her agencies disclosure agreements?

  2. I refer to this interview often. I know it’s from a few weeks ago but just wanted to say how important I think this info is, how brave and valuable Renee is, and what a service you do for all of us by reporting this information. I actually had no idea that FDA employees were paid by the trade associations. Just….wow.

  3. Thanks to Renee Dufault for bringing to light her findings. Reminds me of Lisa Gibbs, from Love Canal. Ms. Gibbs was honored in Atlanta, GA by The March of Dimes. She works on helping citizens understand the important connection between our health and our environment. Ms. Dufault has made the connection between our health and our food/ drinks. Does anyone have an idea of what we can do? By the way, What Companies in Georgia still are using the Mercury cells to produce caustic soda?

  4. The microbial oil, DHA (DHASCO made by Martek Bioscience, used in almost all infant formulas) is processed with sodium hydroxide/lye. What is the difference between food grade lye and industrial lye? Lye is used in making various ingredients in baby formulas. (citric acid, whey, DHA, corn sweetners, etc). I have been in contact with a father who believes his son’s autism is linked to infant formula. Is anyone testing infant formula for mercury contamination? Powdered infant formula and liquid concentrate are prepared with water. My understanding is that mercury has contaminated our water (drinking water) in some areas. Thus, depending on one’s water supply, exposure to mercury might be high. Is there any research available regarding mercury in baby formulas?

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