EDF Health

Selected tag(s): food additives

FDA’s Failure on Food Chemical Safety Leaves Consumers at Risk of Chronic Diseases

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

Update: FDA published the citizen petition upon receipt on 9/23, and is requesting public comment.

More than 60 years ago, Congress enacted legislation requiring the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the food industry to evaluate the cumulative effects of substances in the diet that have related health impacts when assessing the safety of chemical additives. In our decade of analyzing FDA and industry actions, we have been increasingly concerned that both have ignored this requirement. To figure it out, we investigated all safety determinations contained in Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) notifications voluntarily submitted by food manufacturers to FDA since the program began in 1997. We looked at GRAS notices because they are publicly available and because FDA rules explicitly require that food manufacturers include in the notice an explanation of how they considered the requirement. If there was an omission, it would be more easily noticeable.

We found that in only one of 877 GRAS notices did a food manufacturer consider the cumulative effect requirement in a meaningful way. And we found no evidence that the agency either recognized this single attempt to follow the law or had objected to the omissions in the 876 other notices. This failure has significant consequences for public health, particularly for communities who already face significant health and socio-economic disparities, and for children, who are uniquely susceptible to dietary exposures to multiple chemicals.

For this reason, EDF joined with other health, environmental, and consumer groups to file a formal petition to demand FDA and food manufacturers start following the law. The petition requests specific changes to rules designed to reinforce the existing requirement and make it easier to verify compliance. Still, given the lack of transparency in agency reviews, success still largely depends on FDA and the food industry taking seriously the mandate and the food safety implications.

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FDA takes an important step by phasing out paper greaseproofing agents containing a specific PFAS

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

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the phase-out of per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) used to greaseproof paper and paperboard food packaging made from a specific type of short-chain PFAS known as 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol (6:2 FTOH).  The action, narrow as it is, is welcome news for efforts to protect public health and the environment from the risks posed by short chain PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” because they do not degrade.

FDA secured voluntary agreements with three companies, Archroma, Asahi Glass, and Daikin, to phase-out products based on 6:2 FTOH. A fourth company, Chemours, asked FDA to suspend the agency’s approvals on its products containing the PFAS one year ago. The action affects 15 food contact substance notifications (FCN) approved by the agency between 2006 and 2016. It does not address 13 FCNs for similar greaseproofing uses made from PFAS other than 6:2 FTOH. And, under the agreement, consumers may still find 6:2 FTOH-laden, carry-out containers until June 2025.

The process FDA took, and the time it took to get there, reveals the significant difficulties the agency has in reversing past actions in the face of mounting evidence of a chemical’s risk:

  • FDA must seek out information because companies have no obligation to affirmatively notify the agency of new studies showing potential problems;
  • When FDA finds the information and identifies potential safety concerns, it appears to act as if it has the burden of proving the use is no longer safe; and
  • FDA continued approving uses of 6:2 FTOH even after it identified problematic data gaps.

These difficulties reinforce the need for actions being taken by states such as Washington, Maine, New York, and California, by Congress, and by retailers to reduce uses of PFAS in their products. When it comes to food packaging, PFAS are dinosaurs and their time is running out.

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Without a food safety overhaul for additives, the innovative food craze could spiral out of control

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

At an FDA-sponsored conference, EDF proposed a new path forward to ensure innovative food ingredients are safe by overhauling how food additives are regulated today.

Every day brings reports of new ingredients that food innovators around the world have developed to meet consumer demands for a healthier and more sustainable food supply. The innovations range from new ways to extract useful additives from existing sources such as algae to bioengineering to make novel ingredients like sweeteners or proteins that can be grown in a tank instead of on a farm.

At EDF, we encourage innovation that helps communities and the environment thrive, especially in the face of the threats posed by climate change. However, an innovator’s bold claims, especially those involving food safety, must be closely scrutinized before the additive hits the marketplace. Given the potential for harm to consumers, we cannot simply take a company’s assertion of safety at face value – there must be transparency and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must provide an independent review.

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EDF asks judge to rule on legality of FDA rule allowing companies to secretly decide on chemicals in our food

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

At the end of March, EDF, represented jointly by counsel from Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety (CFS), asked a federal district court judge to decide as a matter of law that the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) regulation is unlawful. The GRAS Rule allows food manufacturers to make secret safety determinations for chemicals added to food without notifying FDA or the public and to use such chemicals. If the judge agrees to our request, this would vacate the rule. Two years ago, EDF and others challenged the legality of the GRAS Rule in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. Last September, the court ruled that plaintiffs EDF and the CFS have standing, setting the stage for a decision on the merits of the case.

In the Motion for Summary Judgment, we identify the following four ways in which FDA violated the law in the GRAS Rule. FDA has until May 28 to respond to our motion.

  1. FDA unlawfully delegated to food manufacturers its authority to determine the safety of chemicals added to our food.

When Congress enacted the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) of 1938, it gave FDA the responsibility to ensure the nation’s food is safe and free from harmful substances. To implement this responsibility, it provided the agency broad authority to adopt necessary regulations.

Unfortunately, in the GRAS Rule, instead of fulfilling its responsibility to keep food safe, FDA formally and unlawfully outsourced its responsibility to the regulated entities themselves – namely, for-profit additive manufacturers – allowing them to decide for themselves, in secret, whether the chemical substances they have manufactured can be added to food. This unlawful delegation – made without express statutory authorization – makes it all but impossible for FDA to fulfill its obligations under the FFDCA.

As a result, the GRAS Rule impermissibly allows regulated, private companies with obvious conflicts of interest to self-certify the use of their chemical additives as GRAS without notifying FDA. This is not a case where FDA is seeking legitimate outside input to gather factual information or advice and make policy recommendations. Here, FDA retains no oversight over these secret GRAS determinations that directly affect the safety of our food and thus render it impossible for the agency to fulfill its statutory mandate to keep our food safe.

By delegating its authority in the GRAS Rule, the agency violated Constitutional principles, the FFDCA, and the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). The rule effectively insulates the agency from democratic accountability for food safety decisions and denies citizens their right to seek judicial review of decisions about the safety of substances that may be added to food.

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Important insight from the organic certification approach to chemical additives in food

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

Since 2014, chemicals in food[1] have been consumers’ most important food safety issue, reaching a high of 35% in 2018, according to annual industry surveys by the International Food Information Council. For comparison, “foodborne illness from bacteria” was half that percent.

Food companies have responded to this growing consumer alarm by adopting policies banning artificial flavors, colors and other ingredients that sound like chemicals. This approach is unlikely to do more than serve as window dressing for the underlying problems since it’s not science-based – many of these additives may be safe. The Center for Science in the Public Interest called out this practice in its 2017 “Clean Label: Public Relations or Public Health?” report and pointed readers to its Chemical Cuisine system that rates common additives for health and safety.

There are some companies, like Panera Bread, that are taking a more systematic approach to the ingredients used in the food they sell, starting with the question of whether the additives used are essential and whether the ingredients pose health or safety concerns. As a result, the company worked closely with their suppliers and reformulated many of their products.

And now, thanks to a fascinating new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), we are learning about another structured approach that addresses health concerns with chemical additives – the Federal organic certification program for processed foods. To be honest, before reading the report, I viewed the organic program as narrowly focused on pesticides and was only vaguely aware of how it dealt with chemical additives. I was missing the bigger picture.

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FDA is dragging its feet while children continue to be exposed to perchlorate in food

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

It has been more than 18 months since EDF and other advocates challenged the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) May 2017 decision to continue allowing perchlorate in dry food plastic packaging and food handling equipment.

While Congress gives FDA 180 days to act on food additive petitions, FDA must act “as soon as possible” on a challenge such as ours. However, the agency has yet to complete a review of its May 2017 decision in light of our concerns and evaluate whether to either stand by it, or reverse it. We did not expect FDA would take three times longer to review a decision already made, especially since our objection is largely based on the agency’s own data.

In the meantime, perchlorate in food continues to threaten children’s brains. The chemical, a component of rocket fuel, disrupts the thyroid gland’s normal function and reduces production of the thyroid hormone needed for healthy fetal and child brain development. FDA’s own studies show increased levels of perchlorate in foods such as baby food dry cereal, indicating the chemical’s intentional use in dry food packaging is the likely source of increased exposure for young children.

How FDA got it wrong

In FDA’s May 2017 decision to continue allowing intentional use of perchlorate in contact with dry food, the agency largely relied on flawed science to assess dietary exposure. Its three central errors were:

  1. Ignoring its own data showing significantly increased exposure for children;
  2. Woefully underestimating exposure based on a flawed migration test; and
  3. Unrealistically assuming that perchlorate-laden plastic would only contact food once.

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