EDF Health

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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FDA and industry continue to ignore cumulative effects of chemicals in the diet

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, consultant

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made no apparent progress to comply with the legal requirement that it consider the cumulative effect of chemicals in the diet that have similar health impacts when evaluating the safety of an additive. A year ago, on September 23, 2020, EDF and 11 other organizations[1] filed a formal petition with the agency documenting the problem and asking it begin complying with the law.

We reviewed FDA and industry actions since the petition was filed and found that both continued to ignore the requirement 100% of the time in:

  • Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) notices in which companies were required to consider the cumulative effect as part of their determination that a substance’s use was safe;
  • FDA’s responses to those GRAS notices where it found “no questions” with the flawed safety determinations; and
  • FDA’s revised guidance to industry on use of recycled plastics in food packaging.

The agency’s only response to our petition was a March 2021 letter saying it “has not reached a decision due to competing priorities” and that the “petition is currently under active evaluation by [its] staff.”

From what we can see, FDA and industry continue to make safety determinations about chemical additives without regard to their overall effect on individuals’ health and their legal obligations. Is it any surprise that consumers continue to rate chemicals in food their #1 food safety concern? Read More »

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Chemicals in food continue to be a top food safety concern among consumers

Chemicals in food continue to be a top food safety concern among consumers

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, consultant

The latest annual food industry survey demonstrates that U.S. consumers continue to have significant concerns about chemicals in food. Specifically, the survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) found:

  • 29% of consumers rated chemicals in food as their top food safety concern, more than any other issue, including foodborne illness from bacteria. Everyone rated chemicals in food among the top three concerns. Chemicals in food has been the top concern every year since 2017, tying risk from COVID-19 from food last year. It has been a significant concern back to the first IFIC Food and Health Survey in 2009.
  • 69% of consumers did not realize that the U.S. government is responsible for reviewing the safety of low-calorie sweeteners, which are among the most well-known food additives.
  • 54% of consumers reported it is important that ingredients do not have “chemical-sounding names” including 26% that rate it “very important.” Their opinion is primarily based on food safety and healthfulness concerns.

Our takeaway is that consumers continue to be concerned about chemicals in food, partly because they are not confident that the federal government is actually ensuring additives are safe. Therefore, they do their best to try and protect their health and safety by avoiding ingredients that sound like chemicals – the only way they see to control the perceived risk. In reaction to consumer concerns, food companies have undertaken “clean label” programs that either remove these ingredients (which can be helpful) or use names that do not sound like chemicals (which obscure the fact and can be misleading).

A better approach is to actually ensure the chemicals in food are safe and healthy rather than leaving consumers to judge products based on the sound of the ingredient names. Actual safety is the outcome that Congress intended when it adopted the Food Additives Amendment of 1958. Instead, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency with both the responsibility and the authority for food safety, allows companies to decide in secret that additives are safe, fails to consider the cumulative health effect of chemicals in the diet, and lacks any systematic reassessment of past decisions even when new evidence shows potential harm.

FDA needs to step up and address these shortcomings to make our food safe and restore consumer confidence. This involves not only improving its approach to addressing ingredient safety but also their approach towards contaminants that enter our food from the environment, from the packaging, or from food processing.

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FDA’s short-sighted approach to building trust in the safety of cell-cultured meat and seafood products

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

Consumer trust that products are safe to eat is essential to acceptance of any innovative food product. 

One of the most innovative food products expected to enter U.S. markets in coming years is cell-cultured meat and seafood. Producing these products by culturing cells in tanks and forming them into foods that look and taste like their conventionally produced counterparts is a technological achievement. Proponents enthusiastically tout these products as climate-friendly alternatives that provide real hope to meet the world’s growing demand for animal protein in a sustainable way that also minimizes animal welfare concerns.

Consumer trust that products are safe to eat is essential to acceptance of any innovative food product. That trust is built through a rigorous, transparent, and independent scientific review to ensure safety. Without that, questions linger that undermine widespread consumer adoption.

Unfortunately, we have serious concerns that the process the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may be planning to use to review the safety of cell-cultured meat and seafood is inadequate and will undermine consumer trust. From our perspective, the manufacturing process for cell-cultured meat and seafood is a significant departure from current practice and warrants careful scrutiny. FDA guidance is clear that, for these types of changes, the appropriate review options are a food additive petitions or the voluntary Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) notification process. We strongly recommend FDA rely on these existing options existing options rather than create a new approach.

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10 ways the incoming FDA Commissioner should protect people from toxic chemicals in food

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director.

The FDA’s critical role in the COVID-19 pandemic has brought intense interest in whom President Biden will nominate to lead the agency as its new commissioner.

While COVID-19 is the priority, the FDA obviously has many vital other responsibilities. Though it doesn’t get that much attention, one of the important roles of the agency is to protect the public from unsafe chemicals in food. Frankly, their record has been disappointing, but the new administration has an opportunity to fix some key problems that scientists and doctors have been warning us about for years.

Here are ten things the new FDA Commissioner should do to keep unsafe chemicals out of our food. The list ranges from actions on specific chemicals to broader reforms.

  1. Stop letting industry decide for themselves, in secret, whether chemicals are safe and can be added to food. EDF, represented by Earthjustice, and the Center for Food Safety, have sued the agency to close the dangerous “Generally Recognized as Safe” loophole.
  2. Systematically reassess dangerous food chemicals it has allowed to be used in food based on new information. The FDA approved the use of many chemicals in food decades ago, and we now have evidence that some of these are unsafe. A chemical shouldn’t be given a forever approval. There needs to be a systematic process to review the scientific evidence, especially when new risks come to light.
  3. Ban the use of perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel, from use in plastic packaging and equipment that comes into contact with food. Perchlorate gets into food, and exposure is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, infants, and young children, as it has been linked to developmental delays, reduced growth, and impaired learning abilities. We’ve sued the FDA to get this chemical out of food, and the case is pending.
  4. Comply with its 60-year-old Congressional mandate to look at the cumulative effect of chemical exposures people have when deciding whether to approve the use of related chemicals in food. EDF’s investigation of 900 approval decisions found that just one followed this common-sense mandate. The reality is that no one is exposed to just one chemical – so the agency shouldn’t be analyzing chemicals’ safety as if that were the case. FDA must respond to a petition filed by EDF and other organizations demanding that the agency follow the law and assess chemicals as classes.
  5. Drive down levels of heavy metals in food. Over the last decades, evidence has emerged of concerning levels of lead, arsenic, and cadmium in food consumed by children, such as rice, juice, and root crops like sweet potatoes and carrots. The FDA should move quickly and aggressively on its new commitment to set limits on heavy metals in food children eat and should also set limits for other food.
  6. Use modern science when evaluating if a chemical poses a health risk. The FDA is stuck in the past by relying on outdated, less accurate scientific methods and ignoring the evolving information we now know about chemical exposure. You wouldn’t insist on driving a car the Flintstones drove just because that was the first car ever.
  7. Prohibit lead from being added to materials that contact food, such as the tin that lines metal cans, and tighten limits for lead in bottled water. EDF’s analysis of FDA data found lead in 98% of certain canned fruits compared to 3% in fresh or frozen types. We’ve sent a formal petition to FDA requesting it immediately take action to ban these harmful and unnecessary uses of lead. Though it’s not a food safety issue, the FDA should also reject a challenge to its decision to ban lead acetate in hair dye. That challenge has put the FDA decision on hold, meaning that people are literally still putting lead on their head!
  8. Prohibit ortho-phthalates from being added to food packaging and processing equipment. These chemicals are known to disrupt hormones and harm brain development. The FDA is significantly overdue in meeting its legally required deadline to make a decision based on a petition from 2016 by EDF and nine other consumer, public health, and environmental groups to ban these chemicals.
  9. Be more transparent about the decisions it is making on chemicals in food. Information about FDA decisions should be publicly available without a Freedom of Information Act request and a months-long wait to learn more about agency actions on the chemicals in our food supply.
  10. Take aggressive action on harmful PFAS in food packaging and processing equipment. PFAS (Per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances) can provide water and grease resistance to paper and paperboard and can also leach into food. Growing evidence links PFAS to a wide range of serious health effects – from developmental problems to cancer. And now we know that many types of PFAS bioaccumulate in the body.
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Think PFAS in food packaging are safe simply because FDA accepted their use? Think again.

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

PFAS manufacturers’ claims that the agency demands scientific data, including toxicity and exposure, and conducts a rigorous review before allowing the use of the chemicals in contact with food are not accurate.

Per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS)—recently dubbed “forever chemicals”—have received a large amount of national attention, mostly due to contamination of drinking water affecting millions of Americans. Since June 2019, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its testing results from three studies, questions have arisen about food as a source of PFAS exposure. The main routes by which PFAS enter the food supply are environmental contamination—such as from nearby chemical manufacturing facilities, airports or Department of Defense operations—and from food packaging and processing equipment.

With greater attention on PFAS in food, we’ve noticed several misleading PFAS manufacturers’ talking points asserting that FDA review and acceptance is required for any PFAS to be used in contact with food, and that, due to this review, PFAS that go through this process are safe. However, their claims that the agency demands scientific data, including toxicity and exposure, and conducts a rigorous review before allowing the use of the chemicals in contact with food are not accurate.

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