EDF Health

Broken GRAS: It’s time for FDA to wake up and protect consumers from dubious ingredients

Maricel Maffini, consultant and Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director

This blog is the third in our Broken GRAS series where we explore how the Food and Drug Administration’s Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) voluntary notification system for novel chemicals added to food works in practice and why it is broken.

In this blog, we examine another voluntary GRAS notice submitted to the FDA, this one for Venetron, an extract of Apocynum venetum leaves. It is marketed for sleep improvement and anti-stress and used as a dietary supplement and food ingredient. Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request reveal that FDA scientists raised safety concerns about Venetron. Under the broken GRAS system, however, the company that manufactures the ingredient was able to withdraw its notification and continue to market the chemical as GRAS, despite the questions raised by the agency.

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Japanese company Tokiwa Phytochemical (Tokiwa) voluntarily notified the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in August 2014 that it had determined its extract of Apocynum venetum leaves was Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). The extract, called Venetron, would be an “ingredient in food” at levels up to 100 mg per day, the company said in the notice (GRN 530). Tokiwa indicated that Venetron could be incorporated into “health food product[s], such as tablet[s] or capsule[s],” but did not identify specific foods to which the substance might be added.

In support of its GRAS determination, the company presented results of preclinical and clinical investigations that examined the safety of the extract in mice and healthy adult male volunteers. They also reported data on the effectiveness of Venetron to treat individuals with mild depression. It convened a panel of three experts ‒ Drs. Veronika Butterweck (Univ. of Applied Sciences and Arts, Northwestern Switzerland), Sansei Nishibe (Health Sciences Univ. of Hokkaido), and Kuo-Hsiung Lee (Univ. North Carolina at Chapel Hill) ‒ to review the studies, as well as a “history of human intake” of Rafuma [another name for A. venetum] leaf extract and its use as a dietary supplement in Japan and as a drug in China to treat insomnia, kidney disease, hypertension and heart palpitations.

Tokiwa said the panel “unanimously concluded that VENETRON™, when used in foods in general at levels providing a daily total intake of 100mg/person/day, is safe,” and that the GRAS determination was based on “scientific procedures supported by a history of safe use.” Read More »

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Broken GRAS: Scientists’ safety concerns are hampered by FDA’s inactions on food chemicals

Maricel Maffini, consultant, and Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director

A federal district court this fall ruled that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has the authority to allow food companies to make Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) safety determinations for novel chemicals added to food without notifying the agency. The decision followed a lawsuit by EDF and others, in which we challenged this practice. The court agreed, in part, with FDA that an uptick in companies voluntarily choosing to send notices to the agency since the 2016 rule went in effect was a sign that the program was working.  We disagree with the court’s conclusion but opted not to appeal.

This blog is the second in our Broken GRAS series where we explore how the voluntary notification system works in practice and why it is broken. The first dealt with a synthetic chemical called apoaequorin and marketed as Prevagen, a chemical found in jellyfish and used in protein shakes. The company claims the substance helps memory, but FDA has repeatedly raised serious questions about its safety. Despite the agency’s concerns the company continues to sell the product as GRAS. 

In this blog, we examine another voluntary GRAS notice, this one for GABA, a neurotransmitter naturally produced in the brain and known to slow down certain nervous system activities. It is marketed as a food ingredient despite FDA’s serious concerns with the notice that prompted the company to withdraw it. The agency does not make such information publicly available. We were able to learn of FDA’s concerns through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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Companies have the option to voluntarily notify FDA when they determine that a use of a new chemical or a new use of an existing chemical is Generally Recognized as Safe, or GRAS. When they do notify FDA, agency scientists then review the data and supporting information and can ask additional questions. In most of the cases, FDA agrees with the company’s determination and publishes a “no questions” letter. In roughly 20% of cases, however, companies ask the agency to stop the process after receiving the scientists’ questions. FDA then stops its review and announces a “cease to evaluate” status in the GRAS notification inventory, and that’s the end of it. There is no public record of as to why the company withdrew the notice. In some cases, a brief summary is included in the agency’s response to the cease to evaluate letter published in its website. The company is free to market and sell the substance if it still believes the chemical’s use is GRAS.

This happened with gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). As you will see, the GABA case is a prime example of the 1) importance of FDA’s scientific review of safety data, and 2) profound implications for health risks when the agency takes no action in response to safety concerns raised by its own experts. A product with the safety concerns we describe below warrants closer examination, regardless of its current market share. Where serious health effects are found, it is important for FDA to act quickly before a specialty product like this one becomes more popular, and its health risks amplified. Read More »

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Broken GRAS: Undermining the safety of dietary supplements and food

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, consultant

Over the years, we have seen a disturbing approach being taken by some dietary supplement companies to circumvent the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) oversight. Their strategy undermines both dietary supplement safety and food safety. These companies are leveraging FDA’s decision to allow manufacturers to secretly self-certify food chemicals as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) in order to:

  1. Bypass mandatory new dietary supplement ingredient (NDI) notice requirements; and
  2. Expand their market from dietary supplements into conventional food.

We have long-challenged FDA’s interpretation of the GRAS exemption in the Food Additives Amendment of 1958 because it results in the agency being unable to fulfill its statutory duty to ensure food is safe.[1] When Congress passed the amendment, the GRAS exemption was expected to be for common substances like oils and vinegar. In this blog, we explain how the agency’s flawed approach to GRAS also undermines the safety of dietary supplements. Read More »

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Time for a safer food supply: The legal challenge to FDA’s GRAS Rule

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director, Environmental Defense Fund

This blog initially was published as a guest column in Chemical Watch on September 9, 2019. After publication, FDA filed its reply brief to the plaintiff’s August 23, 2019 brief. The briefings are complete and the case awaits a decision by the judge.

Litigation is a time-consuming and often inefficient means to fix a broken regulatory system. However, when there is a fundamental disagreement about a regulatory agency’s responsibilities under the law, it is an essential option. Such is the case with the “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) exemption from the requirement for pre-market approval of food additives in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) interprets this exemption as allowing companies to determine whether a substance’s use is GRAS in secret without any notice to the agency.

Next year, I anticipate a federal district court will make a final decision on a lawsuit[1] challenging the FDA’s 2016 GRAS Rule that formalized the agency’s broad interpretation of the exemption and its narrow interpretation of its responsibilities under the FFDCA to “protect the public health by ensuring that . . . foods are safe, wholesome, sanitary, and properly labeled . . . .” (21 U.S.C. §393(b)). It would come a decade after the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress, concluded that “FDA’s oversight process does not ensure the safety of all new GRAS determinations.” The GRAS Rule does little to address the shortcomings described by GAO.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), represented by Earthjustice, and the Center for Food Safety (CFS) are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit asking the court to declare the GRAS Rule unlawful and vacate the rule. On August 23, we filed with the court our response to the agency’s brief on both parties’ motions for summary judgment. FDA is expected to file a reply in September. Based on these briefs, the court may order oral arguments before making a decision.

Read More »

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Challenge to FDA’s GRAS rule moves forward after court rejects request for dismissal

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

In a critical ruling for food additive safety, a federal district court ruled on Wednesday that EDF, represented by Earthjustice, has standing in its legal challenge to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) rule. This 2016 final rule allows food manufacturers to make secret GRAS safety determinations for chemicals added to food, without notifying FDA or the public, and to use the chemical in food without anyone else’s knowledge. The court was considering a motion to dismiss from FDA arguing that plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the case. The judge found EDF and the Center for Food Safety (CFS) “plausibly allege harm to their members” and therefore “satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement for standing.” Our legal challenge now moves to the substance of our concerns with the flaws in the agency’s GRAS Rule.

The court found that members of EDF and CFS showed a risk of harm consistent with the requirements of the law in alleging that FDA’s “GRAS Rule poses a credible threat to their members.” Specifically the court stated that:

  • Their members “have been and will be exposed to potentially dangerous substances that were introduced into the food supply without FDA oversight, public participation, or the opportunity for judicial review.”
  • They “explicitly identify multiple substances that manufacturers determined to be GRAS and used in food despite concerns raised by FDA about their safety, as well as additional undisputedly dangerous substances that Plaintiffs reasonably anticipate will be introduced into the food supply under the GRAS Rule.”
  • “[T]hese injuries are ongoing and imminent.

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American Academy of Pediatrics calls for “urgently needed reforms” to fix broken food additive regulatory system

Tom Neltner, J.D. is Chemicals Policy Director

Today, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a “Food Additives and Child Health” policy statement calling for “urgently needed reforms to the current regulatory process at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for food additives.” The policy applies to chemicals deliberately added to food or to food packaging or food processing equipment that get into food. These substances are used to flavor, color, preserve, package, process and store our food, but many never appear among the list of ingredients. AAP’s statement calls specifically for the following:

  • “Greatly strengthening or replacing the GRAS [Generally Recognized as Safe] determination process;
  • Updating the scientific foundation of the FDA’s safety assessment program;
  • Retesting all previously approved chemicals; and
  • Labeling direct additives with limited or no toxicity data.”

EDF applauds AAP’s policy statement and its decision to add its influential voice to the rising call for reform of the process by which FDA and food manufacturers decide additives are safe. AAP, a professional society representing 67,000 pediatricians, develops policy statements regarding federal, state, and community policies that affect children through an extensive, deliberative process that draws on tremendous scientific expertise. As with past policies, such as those concerning lead toxicity and fruit juice consumption, this statement on chemicals in food presents a well-reasoned assessment of the problem and clear recommendations for reform.

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Posted in FDA, Food, GRAS, Health Policy, Health Science, perchlorate, PFAS, Public Health / Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Comments are closed