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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Challenge to FDA’s GRAS rule moves forward after court rejects request for dismissal

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

In a critical ruling for food additive safety, a federal district court ruled on Wednesday that EDF, represented by Earthjustice, has standing in its legal challenge to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) rule. This 2016 final rule allows food manufacturers to make secret GRAS safety determinations for chemicals added to food, without notifying FDA or the public, and to use the chemical in food without anyone else’s knowledge. The court was considering a motion to dismiss from FDA arguing that plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the case. The judge found EDF and the Center for Food Safety (CFS) “plausibly allege harm to their members” and therefore “satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement for standing.” Our legal challenge now moves to the substance of our concerns with the flaws in the agency’s GRAS Rule.

The court found that members of EDF and CFS showed a risk of harm consistent with the requirements of the law in alleging that FDA’s “GRAS Rule poses a credible threat to their members.” Specifically the court stated that:

  • Their members “have been and will be exposed to potentially dangerous substances that were introduced into the food supply without FDA oversight, public participation, or the opportunity for judicial review.”
  • They “explicitly identify multiple substances that manufacturers determined to be GRAS and used in food despite concerns raised by FDA about their safety, as well as additional undisputedly dangerous substances that Plaintiffs reasonably anticipate will be introduced into the food supply under the GRAS Rule.”
  • “[T]hese injuries are ongoing and imminent.

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American Academy of Pediatrics calls for “urgently needed reforms” to fix broken food additive regulatory system

Tom Neltner, J.D. is Chemicals Policy Director

Today, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a “Food Additives and Child Health” policy statement calling for “urgently needed reforms to the current regulatory process at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for food additives.” The policy applies to chemicals deliberately added to food or to food packaging or food processing equipment that get into food. These substances are used to flavor, color, preserve, package, process and store our food, but many never appear among the list of ingredients. AAP’s statement calls specifically for the following:

  • “Greatly strengthening or replacing the GRAS [Generally Recognized as Safe] determination process;
  • Updating the scientific foundation of the FDA’s safety assessment program;
  • Retesting all previously approved chemicals; and
  • Labeling direct additives with limited or no toxicity data.”

EDF applauds AAP’s policy statement and its decision to add its influential voice to the rising call for reform of the process by which FDA and food manufacturers decide additives are safe. AAP, a professional society representing 67,000 pediatricians, develops policy statements regarding federal, state, and community policies that affect children through an extensive, deliberative process that draws on tremendous scientific expertise. As with past policies, such as those concerning lead toxicity and fruit juice consumption, this statement on chemicals in food presents a well-reasoned assessment of the problem and clear recommendations for reform.

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Posted in FDA, Food, GRAS, Health Policy, Health Science, perchlorate, PFAS, Public Health / Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Comments are closed

Our experience with FDA’s food chemical program reinforces alarming findings from Politico investigation

Tom Neltner, Senior Director, Safer Chemicals and Maricel Maffini, consultant

A powerful investigative article by Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich revealed significant structural and leadership problems at the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) food program. The article articulated what has been implicitly understood by the food safety community. It led to demands from Congress for Commissioner Robert Califf to take aggressive action and even prompted calls for a new agency focused solely on food safety.

“Over the years, the food side of FDA has been so ignored and grown so dysfunctional that even former FDA commissioners readily acknowledged problems. There’s a long running joke among officials: The “F” in FDA is silent.”

– Helena Bottemiller Evich

from Politico article

In response, FDA leadership has pointed to Congress for failing to adequately fund the program and touted examples of where the agency has taken action on food safety.

Yesterday, 30 groups representing food industry leaders, and consumer groups, including EDF, joined in a call for Califf to unify the FDA’s food program under a deputy commissioner for foods with direct line authority over all food-related programs.

We have been advocating for FDA to improve the safety of chemicals added to our food for more than a decade, often working with FDA officials to push for regulatory reforms. From that narrow but deep perspective on food safety, everything we have seen reinforces the shortcomings highlighted in the Politico article. Read More »

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FDA Acknowledged Ortho-Phthalates Could Be Grouped Into Classes For Safety, Then Punted

Maricel Maffini, consultant and Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director

In May, FDA decided to allow continued use of nine ortho-phthalates in food packaging and processing equipment but punted on deciding whether or not using those phthalates is safe. We’ve written about the petitions that resulted in the decision, along with the agency’s decision to “abandon” the use of 19 other phthalates (here, here, here, and here). We’ve also written about how phthalates that industry and FDA say are no longer on the market are showing up in our food (here and here). Today, however, we focus on whether those nine phthalates are a class of related substances—and the implications for public health if they are.

FDA’s obligation to evaluate related chemicals as a class

FDA’s regulations state that additives “that cause similar or related pharmacological effects will be regarded as a class, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, as having additive toxic effects.” In denying our petition, FDA acknowledged that some phthalates could be in a class of related substances. For example, FDA described studies showing that seven phthalates reduced testosterone production – an effect called antiandrogenicity – during fetal development. This caused malformation of the male reproductive system (primarily malformed genitals in male infants). The agency balked at declaring all phthalates anti-androgenic because four of them did not show that effect.[1]

But rather than move forward with a safety assessment of the use of the antiandrogenic phthalates as a class of chemicals with similar toxicity, FDA dropped the issue, implicitly sending the message the chemicals are safe. This is contrary to the agency’s obligation. When making a final decision on a food additive petition that allows the use of a substance, FDA must explicitly decide the use is safe after considering the cumulative effect of it and related substances in the diet.[2]

In contrast to FDA’s failure to act, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, responding to safety concerns, took action five years earlier and banned use of antiandrogenic phthalates in children’s products.

A phthalate scorecard: Where we stand on which phthalates can be used and their health effects

The table below provides a scorecard for the nine phthalates that remain in use. Of those substances, studies showed that seven were associated with developmental effects, including four which have antiandrogenic effects. Two phthalates were never studied for developmental effects.

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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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