EDF Health

Why are four notorious carcinogens approved by FDA for food?

By Liora Fiksel, Project Manager, Healthy Communities, and Lisa Lefferts, Environmental Health Consultant

Pregnant woman rests a cup of coffee on her belly.

While exposure data are scant, people who are choosing decaf coffee during pregnancy or for other health reasons may not realize that some popular brands contain methylene chloride.

What’s Happening?

On December 21, 2023, FDA filed a food-additive petition and a color-additive petition submitted by EDF and partners that asks FDA to revoke its approval for four carcinogenic chemicals approved for use in food.

There is broad agreement that benzene, trichloroethylene (TCE), methylene chloride, and ethylene dichloride are carcinogenic,1 and federal law2 is clear: additives that cause cancer in humans or animals are not considered “safe.” All the chemicals have been identified as causing cancer in humans or animals since the 1970s and 1980s.3 Read More »

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New updates to understanding packaging scorecard spur a safer & more sustainable foodservice industry

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ICYMI: Secret GRAS determinations may outnumber those FDA reviews

Quote from FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, MD. "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."

NOTE: This blog was originally published on our Deep Dives blog on April 13, 2023. It predates the recent reorganization efforts at FDA.

What Happened?

FDA estimates that, each year, food companies designate 82 new food chemicals as “GRAS” (Generally Recognized as Safe) for use in food. On average, FDA reviews only 64 of those new chemicals for safety. For the remaining 18 chemicals in FDA’s estimate, the companies making and marketing them for use in food or in the food-production process choose not to seek a voluntary review by FDA.

In comments to the agency, we said we think FDA’s estimate may be too low – and the number of new chemicals added to food that bypass FDA review may be as high as 130 new food chemicals a year (significantly higher than 18). This is based on searches of company marketing claims. In an 8-week period, we identified 10 chemicals claimed as GRAS without a submitted notice to FDA seeking voluntary review. (Please see our comments for a full explanation of our estimate.) Read More »

Also posted in Broken GRAS, Chemical regulation, FDA, Health policy, Industry influence, Public health, Regulation / Tagged , , , | Authors: , / Comments are closed

Unleaded Food: FDA acts quickly on contaminated applesauce

What’s Happening?

The North Carolina Departments of Health & Human Services and Agriculture & Consumer Services identified WanaBana cinnamon applesauce pouches as a source for elevated blood lead levels in multiple children. They found extraordinarily high concentrations of lead (1,900- 5,100 ppb) in the products, leading to the identification of at least 34 cases of elevated blood lead levels across 22 states to date.

On October 28, 2023, FDA issued a safety alert advising that “parents and caregivers of toddlers and young children who may have consumed WanaBana apple cinnamon fruit puree pouches should contact their child’s healthcare provider about getting a blood test.” Three days later, the company issued a voluntary recall.

As the recall expanded, FDA transferred the investigation to its Coordinated Outbreak Response & Evaluation (CORE) Network to determine the source of lead contamination and whether additional products are linked to illnesses.

Brands under a voluntary recall. Photo credit: FDA

Brands under a voluntary recall. Photo credit: FDA

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California mandates toxics testing/disclosure for baby food

Tom Neltner, Senior Director, Safer Chemicals and Katelyn Roedner Sutter, State Director, California

Three jars of baby food surrounded by cut-up vegetables and fruit

What Happened?

On October 10, 2023, California Assembly Bill 899, authored by Assembly Member Al Muratsuchi, became law. It requires manufacturers of baby food (other than infant formula) who wish to sell their products in California to:

  • Test a representative sample of each baby food product for four toxic elements (arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury) at least monthly starting in 2024.
  • Provide the test results to the California Department of Health upon request.
  • Make the results of the testing publicly available on the manufacturer’s website for the shelf life of the product plus one month. That provision goes into effect in 2025.

In addition, as FDA establishes action levels for the four toxic elements, manufacturers must also include a quick response (QR) code on the label that links to the manufacturer’s website, where consumers can find the test results for that toxic element.

Why It Matters

By requiring testing and reporting on these foods, California will provide parents and guardians with important information they need to compare products and make purchasing decisions. The law also:

  • Sets a precedent for greater testing and disclosure of food contaminants; and,
  • Is noteworthy, in that baby food companies did not oppose the bill.

The law will strengthen FDA’s efforts to reduce children’s dietary exposure to those toxic elements to the lowest possible levels, while maintaining access to nutritious foods by filling two critical gaps in FDA’s Closer to Zero program. FDA current approach sets action levels on final products that food companies must meet and requires they use preventive controls to manage toxic elements in their ingredients. It does not require final product testing or disclosure of any testing results.

Read More »

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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.

Read More »

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