Thank You!
Search OCA:
Get Local!

Find Local News, Events & Green Businesses on OCA's State Pages:

OCA News Sections

Organic Consumers Association

NRDC to Launch Attack on Food Ingredient Approvals

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Health Issues page and our Food Safety Research Center page.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is best known for climate activism and celebrity fundraisers, but now the environmental powerhouse is escalating its work in another area: food policy.

By hiring two top food additive researchers - Tom Neltner and Maricel Maffini - NRDC is positioning itself to launch an aggressive campaign for much stronger regulation around the way the Food and Drug Administration approves the use of those food ingredients you can't pronounce.

The move by NRDC, a $100 million-a-year operation, is the latest sign of the coming of age of food activism, as more and more Americans are becoming obsessed with food labeling, genetically modified organisms and where their food comes from.

"Our food work has been expanding, in part because of the increasing public interest in food," says Linda Greer, the group's director of health programs.

Both Neltner and Maffini are coming from the Pew Charitable Trusts, where they delivered a series of groundbreaking reports following a three-year study of the food additive approval process that wraps up this month. The Pew reports suggest the food industry has too much control over the way such ingredients as xanthan gum, maltodextrin and polyglutamic acid have been granted FDA's generally recognized as safe, or GRAS, status, which allows them to be used in the food supply without agency approval.

Overall, there are about 10,000 chemicals allowed in food products, about 43 percent of which have been deemed generally recognized as safe, according to Pew.

The group's most recent report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found "ubiquitous" conflicts of interest in GRAS determinations. Researchers looked at the 451 GRAS notifications that companies voluntarily submitted to FDA between 1997 and 2012 and found that nearly two-thirds of those safety assessments were made by an expert panel selected by the manufacturer or a consulting firm. About a fifth of those assessments were made by an employee of an additive manufacturer.

One of the issues highlighted by Pew is that companies are not required to notify FDA about their decision, and oftentimes they don't. FDA does not have a list or database of all the chemicals that can be used in food.

Pew has published two other peer-reviewed studies in recent months: one that found gaps in toxicology data for food additives and another that found FDA has not acted on a significant portion of the recommendations made by its own expert panel in 1983.

The group's capstone report could be released as early as next week and is expected to call for reforms, which could include congressional action to give the FDA more authority.

NRDC is planning to use Pew's research and recommendations as the framework for its advocacy campaign. However, where the Pew group might have taken a more cooperative approach to working with the food industry and regulatory agencies, NRDC isn't likely to pull any punches. The organization has a long history of taking on controversial chemicals and creating headaches for industry, enlisting the help of such celebrities as Leonardo DiCaprio, Scarlett Johansson and Ke$ha in both fundraising and activism.

NRDC was instrumental in pushing for carbon dioxide to be regulated as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, stricter drinking water standards and the phasing out of lead in gasoline. In the food realm, the council currently is best known for its work on Bisphenol A, a chemical used in hard plastics and food packaging blamed for a host of reproductive and developmental health issues, and for its advocacy on limiting antibiotics in animal agriculture, which included suing the FDA.

NRDC will focus on "whatever works" to strengthen food additive oversight, Greer says. This could include a mix of litigation, lobbying Congress and the FDA, and "playing the outside game," which means reaching out directly to consumers and working with state and local groups to push their agendas forward.

"Our work is now more challenging than ever because, as you know, this town is not effective at policymaking," Greer says. "Lately, we have been doing less work on Capitol Hill, but it would not surprise me if this additive work expanded our lobbying. There's a lot of interest in food on the Hill."

One member of Congress who already has shown interest is Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). At the request of DeLauro and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), in 2010 the Government Accountability Office issued a report on food additive regulation. That report noted that ingredient manufacturers can determine their substance is GRAS "without FDA's approval or knowledge" and concluded that "FDA's oversight process does not help ensure the safety of all new GRAS determinations."

"Given the FDA has been dragging their feet for nearly 20 years and has a well-established track record of failure to oversee food additives, any additional findings to this effect come as no surprise," DeLauro said. "The FDA has an obligation to protect the nation's food supply and consumers are ill-served by any action - or inaction - that does not further that obligation. The administration needs to act immediately to ensure that American families never have to worry their dinner will make their families sick."

NRDC most likely will find a receptive media as it amps up its focus on food ingredients, too. In recent weeks, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, U.S.News & World Report and a number of other news outlets, reported on Pew's research on conflicts of interest in the GRAS process. The increased coverage of this obscure regulatory area follows a handful of high-profile consumer revolts over little-known food additives. The industry and regulators have been taken by surprise by successful online petitions aimed at cochineal extract in Starbucks frappuccinos, ammonia hydroxide in ground beef and brominated vegetable oil in Gatorade.

The food industry, meanwhile, can be expected to respond to NRDC by arguing that FDA's system for regulating food additives is working.

Brian Kennedy, a lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, one of the industry's most-powerful lobbies, calls the GRAS system "a very thorough and comprehensive process."

"Product safety is the foundation of consumer trust," he adds. "Our industry devotes enormous resources to ensure that our products are safe."

And if a battle is going to be waged on the Hill over the GRAS approval process, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, whose members include flavor makers and users like Dr Pepper Snapple Group, Nestlé USA and PepsiCo, told POLITICO that it stands prepared to defend FDA's current approach.

"Pretty much anything in a box, bottle or a can has added flavors that add value to that consumer product," said John Cox, FEMA's executive director, who notes how the industry supports jobs in New Jersey, Illinois, Ohio, California and Michigan.

"The flavoring industry is very important to North American manufacturing," adds Cox. "We're already in touch with members to remind them of the importance of this industry. Congress will want to be careful to not disturb a system that's not broken."

Food regulation attorney Tony Pavel, a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and general counsel for the Enzyme Technical Association, a trade group for one type of additive commonly used in food production, doesn't think the program needs overhauling either.

"The food industry I work with is responsible and dedicated to food safety," Pavel said. "The downsides are just too great. Brands, even entire industries, are on the line. It's not something they take lightly."

While stakeholders disagree on whether FDA needs more authority over additives, everyone seems to agree the agency simply does not have the capacity to review all of them. The agency has a limited budget and a rapidly expanding plate, thanks in large part to the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act that Congress passed in late 2010.

Experts say companies tend to use the GRAS process because it takes only six months on average. If they asked FDA to formally approve an additive, it could take two years.

Mark Itzkoff, an attorney at Olsson Frank and Weeda that represents several food interests, including the National Confectioners Association, the National Frozen Pizza Institute and Red Bull, says resources are a huge issue. "FDA doesn't have the manpower or the resources to review all of them," Itzkoff says. "It would be a logjam."

But Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University and author of "Food Politics," believes the agency needs to make the time.

"I can understand why the FDA has kept hands off - it's way busy with other matters - but the Pew findings are so shocking and so embarrassing that it is going to have to take some action," Nestle says. "No wonder additive industry groups are getting worried. They've had a virtually free pass for years and must be terrified to come under scrutiny."    


>>> Read the Full Article

For more information on this topic or related issues you can search the thousands of archived articles on the OCA website using keywords: