A new bill directing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to close the “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) food additive loophole has just been introduced by a group of U.S. Senators.
The GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) exemption was initially created to cover ingredients that are widely known to be safe, such as vegetable oil. Unfortunately, for over a decade and a half a loophole in this law has been used by Big Food manufacturers to inject new, often undisclosed synthetic and industrialized chemicals into U.S. food that have not been safety tested. Chemical and food manufacturers often seek to add chemicals to processed food, typically to enhance flavor, add nutrients, or prevent spoilage. Chemicals also often leach into foods from processing equipment and packaging. Any substance designated under this category, whether by FDA or by a food or chemical company, can currently bypass the rigorous pre-market review and approval process applied to food additives.
But under this new bill, before new chemicals can be added to our food, companies will have to inform the FDA of their safety determinations. The FDA in turn will have to inform the public, and the public will be able to provide input. It also includes common-sense provisions that prohibit carcinogenic substances from being considered Generally Recognized as Safe, and prevent the agency from relying on experts with conflicts of interest when determining if a substance is GRAS. (source)
“If people don’t know what it really is, it can’t be generally recognized.”
~Tom Neltner, JD., GRAS researcher for Natural Resources Defense Council
Backstory (from the CFL book, The FoodHacker’s Handbook):
For nearly two decades the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has looked the other way while Big Food corporations have used a giant loophole in the GRAS system (a food additive/ingredient approval system referred to as ‘Generally Recognized as Safe’) to dump numerous synthetic and industrialized food additives into the food supply sans the mandated safety testing to assure that the additives are safe for humans (including in utero, infants and children) and that they have no significant short-term adverse effects or potential for long-term health complications. (source)
How did this happen?
The FDA’s new system allows manufacturers to certify, based on the company’s own research, that such ingredients are already Generally Recognized as Safe, or GRAS—which means food manufacturers no longer have to submit their research and raw data to the FDA. The result is that companies often bypass the FDA altogether. Under the rules, companies may make their own GRAS determination. Sharing it with the agency and getting it to sign off is voluntary.” This finding has been replicated in a research report released by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). A lawsuit was recently filed against the FDA by a food safety organization for negligent oversight and for permitting harmful additives to enter the food supply. The FDA tried to get the suit dismissed based on a lack of evidence of harm resulting from the unknown and unmonitored chemicals; ultimately all that happened was that the judge compelled them to finalize the rule for their GRAS procedures initially created in 1998.
Whether this legal maneuver would amount to anything substantive to protect consumers was questionable from the onset; the FDA has been petitioned and sued numerous times over the past few decades over various food chemicals that have been found in scholarly scientific studies to be carcinogenic or otherwise a potentially serious health problem, to no avail. Between regulatory capture, a lack of legal authority and resources to set limits on the very companies they are charged with regulating, political posturing, and what appears to at least some independent scholarly researchers working with the FDA to be something bordering on scientific incompetence (more specifically, their complete resistance to modern scholarly scientific research methodology and an insistence to rigidly clinging to outdated, ineffective observational-based research is pervasive in the agency), when it comes to requiring rigorous testing and oversight of food chemicals, the governmental body in charge of food safety is anything but trustworthy. (source)
So what is next?
Only time will tell if the bill just introduced will actually pass, and if it does, whether it will still have the teeth necessary to stop exposing U.S. consumers to potentially dangerous synthetic/industrialized chemical additives that have not been safety tested.