Your Secret Chemical Diet: Big Food Decides What’s Safe to Eat

Thanks to the ‘generally recognized as safe’ distinction, corporations are bypassing federal regulators.

(Photo: Flickr)

Apr 24, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Michael F. Jacobson is cofounder and executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

You don’t have to read many ingredient labels to know the American diet contains a wide range of chemicals. Many of those chemicals—aimed at flavoring, coloring, preserving, conditioning, or otherwise enhancing the taste or appearance of processed foods—are perfectly safe, even if they are sometimes hard to pronounce.

At least, we hope they are.

Alarmingly, the federal agency that regulates additives in our food supply doesn’t have a firm handle on the chemicals used in our food. Despite a 1958 law requiring the Food and Drug Administration to evaluate the safety of the substances used in the food supply, companies are largely free to decide for themselves which chemicals are considered “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, for use in food.

How did we get here? That 1958 law made a distinction between novel chemicals that might be risky and foods that had traditionally been used in foods or were widely considered safe. That framework was designed to let the agency focus on evaluating the safety of the first category of foods while not requiring pretesting of basic and common food ingredients such as vinegar, baking soda, and ascorbic acid (vitamin C).

But in 1997, the FDA invited chemical and food companies to exploit that once-sensible exemption. Today, companies use it to claim that a dizzying array of complex and novel chemicals are safe for use in food. Sometimes companies notify the FDA of their intention to declare a chemical as safe, providing a summary of the evidence indicating its safety. In other cases, a trade association funded by the artificial-flavoring industry itself reviews new flavorings and decides whether the chemicals are safe—an obvious conflict of interest. And in an unknown number of cases, companies decide for themselves that a chemical or a new use is safe and bypass the FDA altogether—using it in total secrecy.

This industry-controlled, secret system for foods is not remotely what Congress intended when it passed the Food Additives Amendment in 1958.

For instance, companies are using newfangled chemical “taste modifiers”—which may help foods taste sweet or salty with less sugar or salt—but are obscuring that use behind the catch-all “artificial flavors” on ingredient lists. When I asked the FDA about them, officials told me they didn’t know anything about the additives.

Amazingly, manufacturers have self-certified several chemicals as safe, such as o-phenylphenol and trans,trans-2,4-hexadienal, even when they are considered to be a known or possible carcinogen by governments or authoritative scientific bodies. And no law prevents companies from adding chemicals produced through nanotechnology into the food supply, even though such microscopic materials may have unpredictable effects in the human body.

The FDA was informed about one entirely new foodstuff: mycoprotein. Better known by its brand name, Quorn, this line of meat substitutes has caused thousands of adverse reactions and is linked to at least two apparent deaths. Yet the FDA has done nothing to protect consumers; it casually waved this product into supermarkets more than a decade ago and still accepts it as safe.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. My colleagues and I are working hard to put an end to the secret system of food-additive approvals and otherwise weak oversight.

In a lengthy regulatory filing this month, we told the FDA that the GRAS process is not only broken but illegal, because it violates the 1958 additives law. We’re mounting a nationwide grassroots campaign to put pressure on the agency, which is facing a looming legal deadline to settle this question for good.

Sign our petition today to bring the system out of the shadows and into the light, where it belongs. When you do, you’ll send the officials responsible for regulating the safety of our food this message: Food and chemical companies shouldn’t be able decide for themselves—in secret—which food ingredients are safe.