EDF Health

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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FDA-approved PFAS and drinking water – Q&A on textile mills and environmental permits

Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director, and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Independent Consultant

In May 2018, we released a blog highlighting paper mills as a potentially significant source of drinking water contamination from 14 Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved poly- and per-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) used to greaseproof paper. We showed that wastewater discharge could result in PFAS concentrations in rivers in excess of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s 70 parts per trillion (ppt) health advisory level for drinking water contamination for PFOA and PFOS, the most studied of the PFASs. We identified 269 paper mills with discharge permits that warrant investigation. Readers of the blog have asked some important questions highlighted below. As with most issues involving PFAS, there are many gaps in what we know. Based on the information provided in response to EDF’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to FDA, we hope to fill in some of the gaps and highlight key information needed to better understand the risks of PFASs.  

Question 1: Could textile mills also be a source of PFASs in drinking water?

The answer is “probably.” The FDA-approved PFASs can be used in coating paper that contacts food to repel oil, grease, and water. The same or similar FDA-approved PFASs may be used for non-food uses such as coating textiles to resist stains and repel water.

The processes used to coat paper and textiles differ in some aspects that could affect a mill’s environmental releases. For paper, the PFASs are typically added to the wet wood fibers to be made into paper. In contrast, we understand that PFASs are applied to textiles after the water is removed. Therefore, we would suspect that the amount of PFASs, whether as polymers or impurities, released with the wastewater of a textile mill would be lower compared to that of a typical paper mill. However, there is very little data available to assess the potential environmental release of PFASs from textile mills. Unlike with FDA approvals, there is no environmental review of a chemical’s use in non-food consumer products.[1] So, it would be worthwhile to investigate textile mills for use of PFASs in addition to looking at paper mills.

Using an EPA database[2], we identified 66 textile mills (PDF and EXCEL) in the US, two thirds of which are located in North and South Carolina. Based on wastewater flow, the two largest mills are both operated by Milliken. Its largest facility is in Greenville, South Carolina with a water discharge of 72 million gallons per day (MGD). The second largest is in Bacon, Georgia with a water discharge of 15 MGD. DuPont’s Old Hickory facility, near Nashville, Tennessee, had the third greatest flow at 10 MGD. We do not know whether any of the facilities use and discharge FDA-approved PFASs.

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For children’s food, heavy metals require more attention and better standards

Tom Neltner is Chemicals Policy Director and Michelle Harvey and Maricel Maffini are consultants

In June 2017, EDF released Lead in Food: A Hidden Health Threat. The report examined a decade’s worth of data from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and found lead detected in 20% of baby food samples compared to 14% for other foods. Eight types of baby foods, including fruit juices, root vegetables, and teething biscuits, had detectable lead in more than 40% of the samples. We closed the report with the following recommendation:

In the meantime, parents should consult with their pediatrician to learn about how to reduce lead exposure. They should also check with their favorite brands and ask whether the company regularly tests their products for lead, and ensures that, especially for baby food, there is less than 1 ppb of lead in the food and juices they sell.

As described below, we have reason to believe it will take more focused effort on the part of both FDA and food companies to ensure consistently low levels of heavy metals – lead, arsenic, and cadmium in particular – in infant’s and toddler’s diets.

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EPA sets interim limits on hypochlorite bleach to reduce degradation to perchlorate

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

On May 1, 2018, Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) made an interim pesticide registration decision[1] for hypochlorite bleach used to disinfect drinking water. The office decided to require the “Precautionary Statements” section of the bleach’s pesticide label to include advisory best management practices to minimize the formation of chlorate and perchlorate. The new label will state:

"The following practices help to minimize degradant formation in drinking water disinfection:

  • It is recommended to minimize storage time.
  • It is recommended that the pH solution be in the range of 11-13.
  • It is recommended to minimize sunlight exposure by storing in opaque containers and / or in a covered area. Solutions should be stored at lower temperatures. Every 5º C reduction in storage temperature will reduce degradant formation by a factor of two.
  • Dilution significantly reduces degradant formation. For products with higher concentrations, it is recommended to dilute hypochlorite solutions with cool, softened water upon delivery, if practical for the application."

EDF submitted comments in November 2017 supporting OPP’s proposed label changes and requesting specific changes to the language including making the advice to users mandatory. We also asked the agency to extend the changes to hypochlorite bleach used to treat produce and to disinfect food handling equipment.

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EDF and others take FDA to court to demand action on carcinogenic flavors petition

Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Independent Consultant

FDA’s priority must be resolving safety concerns with existing chemicals over approval of new ones.

On May 2nd, EDF and other consumer health advocates filed a lawsuit to force the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make a final decision on our food additive petition, which asked the agency to reverse its approvals of seven carcinogenic synthetic flavors. Earthjustice is representing EDF in this petition for a writ of mandamus to the court of appeals. We did not take this action lightly. However, with the statutory deadline for a decision passing more than 20 months ago, we saw little chance that FDA would act without court oversight.

Our food additive petition narrowly focused on one specific issue where the law and science were clear, and laid out our review of both the scientific literature and the law concluding that the seven chemicals were no longer safe. FDA formally accepted the petition for filing – essentially confirming it was complete – which triggered a 180-day deadline under the statute to make a final decision. That deadline passed in August 2016 without a decision by FDA.

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