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Food Integrity Campaign Blog

Stop Industry Self-Policing of Food Ingredient Safety

Sarah Damian | October 27, 2011

American food products are commonly filled with substances used to enhance the shelf life, color and flavor of food, as well as enhance the vitamin content or nutritional value that may have been lost during processing. But did you know that a large portion of these added ingredients now in the U.S. market were classified as safe without any government oversight ? According to a new report by the Pew Health Group, at least 3000 ingredients have been given the go-ahead by none other than the companies that made them and benefit from their approval.

Some may be wondering how such a blatant conflict of interest could occur. Unfortunately, that has been the regulatory standard since 1958, when Congress passed the Food Additives Amendment. The report explains the failings of the law:

1. Allows manufacturers to determine that the use of an additive is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), and then use that substance without notifying the FDA. As a result, the agency is unaware of many substances that may be added to food and lacks the ability to ensure that safety decisions were properly made.

2. Does not require that manufacturers inform the FDA when health reports suggest new hazards associated with additives already used in food. Therefore, the agency has no access to unpublished reports and must expend limited resources sifting through published information to identify potential problems and set priorities.

So not only is private industry regulating the safety of its own products, it can also assert they are GRAS, or “Generally Recognized as Safe” and escape package labeling. It’s currently impossible for FDA, let alone consumers, to know all the substances used in food.

FIC has often pointed out the public health risks posed by GRAS policy, including the concern raised by whistleblower Kit Foshee regarding the routine use of ammonia (considered GRAS) in ground beef.

When GRAS was first established more than 50 years ago, it included only very common substances like salt and sugar. But even leaving those ingredients off the label can be an issue, as seen by meat and poultry injected with sodium.

This lack of transparency and oversight was amped even more when the government moved to sidestep public comment before the turn of the century, the report shows:

The research also found that the FDA developed an expedited process in the mid-1990’s that essentially eliminated the opportunity for public involvement in decision making prior to FDA’s safety determination. This shift doubled the rate of industry requests for FDA review. In contrast, standard operating procedure for other federal regulatory decisions regarding drug, workplace, and environmental safety requires public notice and an opportunity to comment.

This self-policing by industry has gone on for far too long. Even the Grocery of Manufacturers Association, according to the Associated Press, agrees that “more transparency would help build consumer confidence.” Let’s get consumers out of the dark and set up an open process of accountability that ensures their food is safe.

 

Sarah Damian is Communications Manager for the Food Integrity Campaign.

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