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Food manufacturers are routinely exploiting a "legal loophole" that allows them to use new chemicals in their products, based on their own safety studies, without ever notifying the Food and Drug Administration, according to a new report by an environmental and consumer advocacy group.

Natural Resources Defense Council identified 56 companies that were marketing products using 275 chemicals that the company's hired experts decided met federal safety standards, known as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). However, the science behind those safety findings and the use of the chemicals was disclosed to the FDA in only six instances. The New York-based NRDC called its report "Generally Recognized as Secret" and said the lack of transparency with the GRAS process is a public health threat.

"If you don't know when (an additive) is being used, how can you determine if it's safe?" said Thomas Neltner, a chemical engineer and co-author of the study that was presented Monday at a Grocery Manufacturers Association's Science Forum at Washington.

In a prepared statement, the GMA defended the GRAS process, saying, "It is a very thorough and comprehensive process that has, under the current law provided FDA with authority to challenge the improper marketing of an ingredient as GRAS, and if necessary, act to remove products containing that ingredient from the food supply."

The FDA said that although the law allows for food manufacturers to make their own safety determinations, the agency "encourages companies to consult with the agency when developing new ingredients." Ultimately, the FDA said, manufacturers "are responsible for ensuring that their food products are safe and lawful."   
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