Consumer group: Federal food additive safety process is illegal

People consuming 'potentially dangerous chemicals,' advocates assert in complaint

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The Center for Science in the Public Interest today charged that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s process for overseeing food additives is illegal.

“Consumers are being exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals that industry self-certifies as safe for use in foods, with little or no scrutiny from the Food and Drug Administration,” the consumer advocacy group said in a press release that accompanied comments the group filed with the agency.

Center for Public Integrity reported this week how a legal loophole created in a 57-year-old law allows the food industry to determine whether additives can be deemed “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, and avoid a rigorous pre-market government safety review.

A second Center for Public Integrity story, published today, details how the food industry repeatedly turns to the same small group of scientists to evaluate the safety of food additives they hope to market. Many of those scientists have done similar work for the tobacco industry, the investigation shows.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest argues in its 80-page filing with the FDA that the agency cannot fulfill its obligation to protect public health. The group notes that the current food additive safety system allows food companies to add new flavors, preservatives and other ingredients to foods and beverages without even telling the FDA.

The group, along with three cosigners — the Natural Resources Defense Council, Consumers Union and Environmental Working Group — further state in the comments that the secretive process “undermines FDA’s ability to conduct meaningful scientific assessments of the safety of food additives.”

In response to a lawsuit filed last year, the FDA is planning to finalize proposed rules governing the GRAS system. The agency re-opened the public comment period for the rules in 2011, through which the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed its comments today.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest proposed that the FDA limit which ingredients may circumvent agency review, minimize financial conflicts of interest for scientists and improve the quality and quantity of scientific data behind safety decisions.

“The FDA’s job is to ensure the safety of our food supply,” Erik Olson, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s health program, said in the press release. “It should be doing much more to protect our health — not outsourcing decisions on the safety of thousands of chemicals in our food to industry.”

The FDA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

But an earlier interview, Dennis Keefe, director of the FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety, stated that proposed additive safety rules in 1997 were never finalized because of “a resource issue” that the agency would have in addressing public comments and getting a rulemaking through general counsel. Keefe said he could not speculate on possible changes to proposed rules.

 

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