Food Industry Initiative Highlights How Little The FDA Knows About What’s In Our Food

For decades, the food industry has been able to use ingredients that are “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) without approval from the FDA. When first used in the ’50s, this was intended to apply to ingredients, like vegetable oils and vinegars, where an additive’s safety is common knowledge, but in 1997, a backlogged FDA allowed food companies to merely submit their GRAS findings instead of the supporting data, creating a loophole the food industry has exploited to include a vast number of chemical ingredients that manufacturers claim are safe but which don’t go through a rigorous approval process. Feeling pressure from the public to pull back the veil on the GRAS process and its ingredients, the food industry announced a transparency initiative yesterday that may be a step in the right direction, but highlights just how little the FDA seems to care about the “F” part of its name.

Yesterday, the Grocery Manufacturer Association, a trade group representing hundreds of the nation’s biggest food and beverage makers, announced a five-part initiative aimed at removing some of the mystery from the GRAS process and ingredients.

Among the key items in that plan is a new GMA-sponsored database that will list information on all GRAS assessments conducted by the food industry. So now, after 17 years of letting the food industry pretty much do what it wanted so long as it promised to be safe, the FDA will be able to see what these companies have been up to.

“FDA has become too reliant on the corporations’ own safety evaluations,” says Laura MacCleery, Chief Regulatory Affairs Attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who adds that companies rarely follow existing FDA guidance on how to conduct studies to determine if an ingredient is safe. “A voluntary submission fails to fix the core problem, which is that there are no appropriately stringent scientific standards for companies’ private safety determinations on food additives, and insufficient review and oversight of those evaluations.”

Tom Neltner of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has also been critical of the GRAS process tells Politico that the GMA initiative, is “certainly a step forward,” but adds that the NRDC thinks the FDA should be responsible for reviewing or signing off on new food additives, rather than continuing to allow the industry to decide for itself.

“That this is seen as a step forward neatly illustrates the dysfunction built into the current system,” says MacCleery. “It is outrageous that FDA doesn’t already have the identity, much less the safety data, of all substances added to the nation’s food supply.”

What remains to be seen is how transparent this database will be to consumers, who should have the ability to judge the science for themselves. The GMA announcement said it will be made available to the FDA and to stakeholders, which implies that only certain parties will have easy access to the GRAS information.