US: Big Food opens up on chemicals in food

American food companies are trying to preempt the federal government’s push to make chemicals in food – how it’s determined that an ingredient is “generally recognized as safe” or GRAS – more transparent.

The GMA, which represents America’s biggest food companies, announced a major new initiative in late August that will give the FDA access to a large database of safety information for chemicals commonly used in processed foods.

Pressure has been building on FDA for years to look more closely at food chemicals, which are mostly self-approved by food companies relying on publicly available science and panels of industry-paid experts. But the agency hasn’t yet done it.

The move makes GMA look good. Even the sharpest critics of how the food manufacturers uses food chemicals, whose safety assessments are often not shared with FDA, are welcoming the voluntary industry move. So is the agency.

“It’s certainly a step forward,” said Tom Neltner, a health scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, and one of the most vocal critics of the current approach to determining the safety of food ingredients, publishing several studies on the issue in the past few years.

“It’s good to see them acknowledge some of the problems with the system and take some positive steps forward,” said Neltner. “We’re glad to see them making that move.”

Leon Bruner, chief science officer at GMA, said he views the initiative as “a big step forward for the industry.”

“We’re going to communicate to the world that we’re taking the lead on this,” he said.

Bruner believes it’s the right time for the food industry to rethink how it approaches food chemicals in part because the entire food safety system is being redesigned under the Food Safety Modernization Act, a bipartisan law passed in late 2010 that aims to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks. Consumer concerns — increasingly amplified on social media and through petition platforms like — have also reached a fever pitch.

“We’re acutely aware of that,” Bruner said. “We want to make sure [consumers] don’t have reason to be concerned.”

“We always need to remember that our food supply is the safest in the world and this is just going to make it better,” he said….. Read more

Additional reading:

GRAS under fire

A report released April 7 by the Natural Resources Defense Council calls into question the adequacy of the FDA’s regulatory exemption known as “Generally recognized as safe (GRAS)” that allows companies to determine if an ingredient poses a health risk. The GRAS process allows companies to declare as safe chemicals added to foods without any notification to the FDA or the public, according to the report…..Read more