EDF Health

EPA’s New Chemical Regulations: Industry Bias Must Be Fixed

By Maria Doa, PhD, Senior Director, Chemicals Policy, and Colin Parts, Legal Fellow

NOTE: This is the fourth in a series about EPA’s regulation of new chemicals. See Time for a New Age for New Chemicals, EPA: Now’s Your Chance to Get Foxes Out of the Henhouse, and New Chemicals Rule: EPA must require more info from industry.

A robotic-looking hand pushes down on the right side of a balance scale to unfairly influence the measurement.

What Happened?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed new regulations for its safety reviews of new chemicals under our nation’s primary chemicals law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). One of these proposed provisions would govern how EPA can change the restricted approvals it issues for new chemicals that may pose unreasonable risks. EPA’s proposed approach would limit the type of stakeholders involved and the potential for stronger chemical regulations.

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Broken GRAS: Companies ignore FDA draft guidance; Bias & conflicts of interest prevail in safety determinations

By Tom Neltner, Senior Director, Safer Chemicals, Klara Matouskova, PhD, Consultant, and Maricel Maffini, PhD, Consultant

What Happened?

In our new study, we evaluated Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) notices—a total of 403 between 2015-2020that food manufacturers voluntarily submitted to FDA for review. Our goal was to determine whether industry was adhering to FDA’s Guidance on Best Practices for Convening a GRAS Panel.

The guidance was designed to help companies comply with the law and avoid biases and conflicts of interest when determining whether substances added to food are safe and recognized as such by the scientific community. FDA published a draft of the guidance in 2017 and finalized it essentially unchanged in December 2022.Infographic showing how a small group of individuals populate almost half of GRAS review panels. Seven individuals accounted for 46 percent of available panel positions.

Our study found that no GRAS notices followed the draft guidance. Specifically, we also found there were high risks of bias and conflicts of interest because the companies:

  • Had a role—either directly or through a hired third party—in
    selecting panelists that likely resulted in bias and conflicts of interest.
  • Depended on a small pool of experts in which seven individuals occupied 46% of panel positions. The seven often served together, further enhancing risk of bias.
  • Relied on panels that did not realistically reflect the diverse scientific community that evaluates chemical risks to public health—which is needed to comply with the law’s requirement that there be a “general recognition” within that community that a substance is GRAS.

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Broken GRAS: FDA’s half-step to limit bias and conflicts of interest in GRAS determinations may backfire

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, consultant

What Happened? FDA finalized a long awaited guidance for industry in December to help reduce conflicts of interest and bias when a chemical manufacturer chooses to convene an expert panel to assess whether a new chemical additive is generally recognized as safe (GRAS).

Why It Matters: As written, FDA’s Best Practices for Convening a GRAS Panel guidance is excellent. If food companies convene GRAS panels consistent with the guidance, the panels’ evaluations will be more credible because they should have less of the pervasive bias and conflicts of interest that plague the current system and all too often result in unsafe chemicals being added to food. But that’s a big if.

Our Take: Unfortunately, we think the guidance is likely to backfire because of the limited scope — FDA explicitly makes GRAS panels optional – a choice the agency made when it finalized the GRAS rule in 2016. Chemical manufacturers will simply avoid convening GRAS panels, relying solely on their employees or a consulting firm they hire to conduct these safety evaluations. These employees and consultants typically have significant bias and conflicts of interest because positive opinions help their employer or client. We raised this issue in comments to FDA, calling for the best practices to apply to everyone involved in the safety evaluation process. FDA did not address our comments in their recommended best practices in the revised final guidance.

While making GRAS panels optional is a serious problem, a more fundamental concern is that FDA may not have an opportunity to review the GRAS safety evaluations made by employees or hire consultants because the company chooses not to notify the agency. FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety fails to consider just how often companies choose not to tell the agency that a new chemical is being added to food. In our Broken GRAS series, we provided six examples of the serious risk posed by the GRAS system, the most public being hundreds of people sickened due to consumption of tara flour, an ingredient in a Daily Harvest frozen meal. Last November, using marketing materials we showed FDA that the number of new chemicals bypassing its review likely outnumber those voluntarily submitted to the agency.

We see no evidence that the agency systematically investigates or even audits the GRAS determinations that bypass their review despite promises made by the agency over the years and a scathing 2010 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office calling for action.

Next Steps: In his effort to reform FDA’s dysfunctional food safety program, FDA Commissioner Califf told a reporter that “I want to throw in chemical safety as another really, really important area for the future – for humankind, really – and where science is evolving rapidly.”[1] If he follows through, fixing GRAS is an important step to rebuild consumer confidence and reduce the ongoing risk to public health. If he fails, the agency will continue to be hamstrung in preventing health risks posed by chemicals of unknown safety.

Go deeper: Broken GRAS series, Neltner et al (2013) Conflicts of Interest in Approvals of Additives to Food Determined to Be Generally Recognized as Safe: Out of Balance; Toxic Free Act; Food Chemical Reassessment Act.

[1] FoodFix, January 31, 2023 edition.

Updated April 9, 2023 to add link for Broken GRAS series.

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