Here’s a shocking fact about your food: A company can decide for itself that a chemical is safe to use in food and doesn’t have to tell the Food and Drug Administration, the agency charged with protecting our food supply. If that same chemical was used to make a tennis racket, the company would have to notify the Environmental Protection Agency, giving the EPA the opportunity to review it for safety.
Your sports equipment may be safer than what’s on your plate.
Senator Ed Markey recently characterized this flawed process as “a self-graded take home exam that industry doesn’t even have to hand in.” That means the food we serve our families contains hundreds of chemicals whose identity or safety is unknown. The process is a massive exploitation of an exception in the 1958 Food Additives Amendment for ingredients found to be “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), which was originally intended for things like olive oil and vinegar.
Food companies use additives to flavor food, enhance its color, prevent spoilage, and more. It includes chemicals used in packaging and food processing equipment that may get into food and covers more than just the ingredients listed on the label. Of the 10,000 or so additives, about 1,000 have been deemed by companies in secret to be generally recognized as safe.
Earlier this month, the FDA had the opportunity to rein in the abuse. Instead, it took a pass. In response to a court order, the agency issued a final rule that formalized its almost 20-year-old voluntary program, claiming it lacked the authority to mandate that companies notify the FDA when they determined a chemical’s use was generally recognized as safe. Put simply, the agency codified a system that lets chemicals be secretly used in food. Even an industry expert reacted to the recent rule by acknowledging that the agency could have done more.
Just two years ago, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food said the law demands that “the assessments need to be based on publicly available information where there is agreement among scientists. … It has got to be more than three employees in a room looking at information that is only available to them.” But the FDA’s final rule did just the opposite. It lets a company continue deciding if something is GRAS based on the professional judgment of one of its own employees using data that would “ordinarily be published” but may, in fact, be secret. The agency did not restrict the obvious conflicts of interest, promising to issue nonbinding guidance to help companies select who is qualified to decide whether a chemical is safe to use in the food we feed our families.
Between 2010 and 2013, I headed the Pew Charitable Trusts’s Food Additives Program. Our exhaustive review of food additives and GRAS determinations showed that the existing program jeopardizes Americans’ health. We called on the FDA to be the one to first approve the use of all new chemicals in food and to review new uses or changes to existing uses of previously approved additives.
Sadly, the final GRAS rule locks in the failed status quo rather than resolving the concerns.
Food is too important to our health to allow companies that profit from the sale of a product to determine in secret what chemical additives it can contain. Nearly 40 percent of consumers rate chemicals in food as their top food safety concern. Americans want to rely on the FDA to ensure that the food we eat is safe, but the agency seems unable to meet this expectation. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the food manufacturer’s trade group, may claim that we have one of the safest food supplies in the world, but consumers aren’t so sure.
In the larger discussion of food and health, we must acknowledge that safety means more than “Will I get sick tomorrow?” It means that the food supply doesn’t contribute to long-term chronic diseases or conditions that impair my or my children’s ability to thrive. Developmental problems and reduced IQ have been tied to chemicals in packaging or used to make food that were approved by FDA decades ago and are known to be present in our food supply. Because the GRAS process has been cloaked in secrecy, the situation may be worse than with these old chemicals.
And it’s not just junk and processed food. Food sold in health-oriented markets, even organic products, can have GRAS chemicals in them.
The FDA can, and should, make the food additives rule stronger by narrowing the GRAS loophole. Ultimately it needs to be eliminated. For that we need Congress to step in. In reforming the process, Congress should also encourage innovation of safer chemicals by allowing companies to secure safety approval from the FDA in a manner that is science-based, transparent, and engages the public while still protecting companies from copycat competitors.
In recent years we’ve seen high-profile cases of bacteria and other pathogens in our food causing serious illnesses. The FDA, Congress, and the public reacted with outrage and action. Now it’s time to act on the secret chemicals in our food. Their effects on health may be slower, but they also cause serious problems. It’s time to end the GRAS loophole that makes us all less safe.
Tom Neltner is the chemicals policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund. His work focuses on food additives and other chemical safety issues.