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Here's what's going on with Soylent's lead and cadmium controversy

Here's what's going on with Soylent's lead and cadmium controversy

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Soylent, the cheap, venture-backed meal replacement, usually gets bad press for being weird, not necessarily for being actively unsafe. That changed last weekend with a press release from non-profit organization As You Sow, claiming that Soylent 1.5 — the latest version of the powdered product — fails "to provide sufficient warning to consumers of lead and cadmium levels," alleging that its own testing showed lead concentrations "12 to 25 times above California's Safe Harbor level" and cadmium levels four times greater.

As You Sow is not claiming that Soylent's lead and cadmium concentrations are illegal, only that they're above the limits set by California's Proposition 65, and that the company isn't meeting its obligation to make consumers aware of that fact. Prop 65, which dates back to the 1980s, is a state law that requires special warnings on any product that contains chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm; at present, the law covers over 800 chemicals, and Prop 65 warning placards can be seen in business of all kinds across the state of California. For around 300 of the chemicals on the list, the state has set a "safe harbor level" — below that level, no warning is necessary.

In its blog post responding to As You Sow's notice, Soylent primarily takes issue with Proposition 65's safe harbor levels, not As You Sow's claims that the product exceeds those levels for lead and cadmium:

The heavy metal levels specified by California Proposition 65, which were cited in As You Sow's press release, are much more stringent than those set by the FDA, the EPA, and the WHO. As a result, most packaged foods sold in California, as well as restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores, convenience stores, and theme parks are required to display the warning. We are not required to change the product, but we are required to display the Proposition 65 text where we sell our products, which we do.

This is where it gets tricky: Soylent does indeed display a Proposition 65 warning on its website's checkout page — not on the product itself, which it can arguably get away with because the website is the product's only official retail outlet. But the messaging is buried at the very bottom of the page, beyond where you'd need to scroll to hit the "Purchase" button. Furthermore, the actual warning isn't even on this page, you have to click through — and you'd need to know what "Proposition 65 information" means to even think to click on it.

Soylent Prop 65 2

Proposition 65 dictates that affected products must include a "clear and reasonable" warning of the offending chemicals they contain, but there are several acceptable ways of getting that warning to the consumer:

§ 25603.1 Consumer Products Exposure Warnings - Method of Transmission

The warning may be provided by using one or more of the following methods singly or in combination:

(a) A warning that appears on a product's label or other labeling.

(b) Identification of the product at the retail outlet in a manner which provides a warning. Identification may be through shelf labeling, signs, menus, or a combination thereof.

(c) The warnings provided pursuant to subparagraphs (a) and (b) shall be prominently placed upon a product's label or other labeling or displayed at the retail outlet with such conspicuousness, as compared with other words, statements, designs, or devices in the label, labeling or display as to render it likely to be read and understood by an ordinary individual under customary conditions of purchase or use.

(d) A system of signs, public advertising identifying the system and toll-free information services, or any other system that provides clear and reasonable warnings.

So while Soylent may be meeting the letter of the law, it probably isn't meeting the spirit. And As You Sow may be able to make a cogent legal argument that there's nothing "clear and reasonable" about a buried link that reads "Please click here for Proposition 65 information." But legalities and press releases aside, from a practical health perspective, none of this may matter: as Soylent notes, Prop 65's guidelines are notoriously stringent, pulling many everyday products into its labeling regime — and outside California, there are other more broadly accepted sets of lead and cadmium guidelines that the product meets.

In other words, it may turn out that everyone is right here: As You Sow has a point that Soylent's Prop 65 labeling isn't great, and Soylent has a point that its harmful chemical levels are still well within accepted safe limits.

As You Sow has filed a 60-day notice of its intent to pursue legal action in the matter, so we'll see if Soylent's labeling gets any clearer in the next two months.