EDF Health

Time for a safer food supply: The legal challenge to FDA’s GRAS Rule

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director, Environmental Defense Fund

This blog initially was published as a guest column in Chemical Watch on September 9, 2019. After publication, FDA filed its reply brief to the plaintiff’s August 23, 2019 brief. The briefings are complete and the case awaits a decision by the judge.

Litigation is a time-consuming and often inefficient means to fix a broken regulatory system. However, when there is a fundamental disagreement about a regulatory agency’s responsibilities under the law, it is an essential option. Such is the case with the “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) exemption from the requirement for pre-market approval of food additives in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) interprets this exemption as allowing companies to determine whether a substance’s use is GRAS in secret without any notice to the agency.

Next year, I anticipate a federal district court will make a final decision on a lawsuit[1] challenging the FDA’s 2016 GRAS Rule that formalized the agency’s broad interpretation of the exemption and its narrow interpretation of its responsibilities under the FFDCA to “protect the public health by ensuring that . . . foods are safe, wholesome, sanitary, and properly labeled . . . .” (21 U.S.C. §393(b)). It would come a decade after the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress, concluded that “FDA’s oversight process does not ensure the safety of all new GRAS determinations.” The GRAS Rule does little to address the shortcomings described by GAO.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), represented by Earthjustice, and the Center for Food Safety (CFS) are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit asking the court to declare the GRAS Rule unlawful and vacate the rule. On August 23, we filed with the court our response to the agency’s brief on both parties’ motions for summary judgment. FDA is expected to file a reply in September. Based on these briefs, the court may order oral arguments before making a decision.

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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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Chemours asks FDA to suspend its approved uses of PFAS in food packaging

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

Politico reported today that Chemours notified the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that it had officially abandoned its three approved food packaging uses of per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) and asked the agency to withdraw its Food Contact Substance Notifications (FCNs) for those uses. We do not know with certainty what prompted Chemours to abandon its PFAS products for food packaging or whether they were ever used in the United States. Based on past experience, we anticipate that FDA will grant the request.

This action takes us one step closer to reducing people’s exposure to these chemicals linked to an array of health risks posed by PFAS at extremely low levels. Additionally, the action should serve as an incentive for other companies to do the same.

Chemours also has FCNs for six PFAS uses in repeat-use food contact articles like gaskets and seals. The company apparently has not asked the agency to abandon these uses. We suspect that the PFAS-treated gaskets may still be in service even if it has stopped treating new gaskets with the chemicals.

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FDA must abandon its flawed assumptions when reviewing safety of approved PFAS uses in food

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

All the PFAS uses allowed by FDA that we reviewed had estimated exposures exceeding the most protective minimal risk level for PFOS proposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In its June 2019 release of a webpage dedicated to per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in food, FDA stated that it is “reviewing the limited authorized uses of PFAS in food contact applications.” As we mentioned in a previous blog, we were pleased to see FDA’s public position on PFAS but we highlighted three major concerns that could impact the ongoing safety review and questioned the conclusion that all is fine. In this blog, we discuss the implications of FDA’s statements on its review of 62 authorized PFAS uses in contact with food and make recommendations to the agency as it proceeds with this promising effort.

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FDA finds surprisingly high levels of PFAS in certain foods – including chocolate cake

[Update: FDA has published a webpage on PFAS and released the data for the studies discussed in this blog].

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

As reported by the Associated Press today, at a conference last week in Helsinki, Finland, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) presented the results of three studies it conducted of 16 per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in various foods. A friend who attended the conference sent us photos of the poster. The results for samples of meat and chocolate cake purchased by the agency in October 2017 as part of its ongoing Total Diet Study (TDS) jumped out at us as surprisingly high and worth further investigation:

  • 17,640 parts per trillion (ppt) of perfluoro-n-pentanoic acid (PFPeA) in chocolate cake with icing. These levels suggest that the cake was contaminated from the intentional use of the chemical to greaseproof paper that contacted the cake rather than from an environmental source. We cannot find any evidence that FDA ever reviewed the safety of PFPeA as a food contact substance – meaning the manufacturer may have secretly designated it as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). We also found little evidence – good or bad – of the health risks posed by this PFAS. We have reached out to FDA to learn more, but as of this blog posting the agency has not yet responded. This chemical was also found in chocolate milk at 154 ppt.
  • Nearly half (10 of 21) meat samples had quantifiable levels of perfluoroctanesulfonate (PFOS) with concentrations ranging from 134 ppt in a frankfurter to 865 ppt in tilapia. Unlike the chemical in chocolate cake, PFOS has been extensively studied because of widespread environmental contamination, especially around the facilities in Alabama and Minnesota where it was previously produced. It is associated with increased cholesterol, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, and decreased birth weight. While comparisons are complicated, the PFOS levels found in some of these meats were far greater than the 70 ppt health advisory set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for drinking water in May 2016. Two years later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) proposed limits that are almost 7 times more protective than EPA’s, partly because more recent studies indicate the chemical may undermine the effectiveness of vaccines. Production of PFOS in the United States reportedly ended in 2002, though it is still made overseas and may have been imported paper. In 2016, FDA removed its approval to greaseproof paper with PFOS.

FDA’s poster also showed testing results from food produced around two PFAS contaminated areas. FDA found most of the 16 PFAS at varying levels measured in produce sold in farmer’s markets downstream of a PFAS production facility in the Eastern U.S. – presumably Chemours’ plant in North Carolina. The highest produce sample had 1,200 ppt and was purchased within 10 miles downstream of the production plant and short-chain PFAS were prevalent.

The other contaminated area was a dairy farm near an air force base in New Mexico. FDA found many of the 16 PFAS in the water and silage used to feed the cows but PFOS was the most prevalent among a few PFAS measured in the milk with levels higher than 5000 ppt. The agency also detected several PFAS in cheese produced by the farm in lower amounts than the milk. Many of the PFAS are likely from aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) used to fight fire and conduct firefighting training at the Air Force base.

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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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