On April 7, 2014 the US non-profit organization Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) published a report entitled “Generally Recognized as Secret: Chemicals Added to Food in the United States” (Neltner and Maffini 2014). In their report, Tom Neltner and Maricel Maffini share an analysis of chemicals that are currently added to food in the US without a premarket safety review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Under the status of Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), manufacturers can sell food contact substances or food additives for which safety determinations may have been made by the manufacturer’s own employees or paid consultants. In most cases the actual basis for this safety determination is not publicly available. FDA may be notified of GRAS determinations. In several cases the report documents that FDA had critical questions regarding the safety of GRAS substances, but manufacturers withdrew the notification before FDA’s critical assessment was made public. Meanwhile, such substances may still be marketed as GRAS and are found in foods on the US market.
The NRDC report states that a “product may be a natural extract or a highly purified version of one, but that does not necessarily mean it is safe”; and further, “undisclosed safety determinations affecting the food that Americans eat may be undermining public health.” The report’s authors call for public disclosure of GRAS determinations, and ask FDA to require mandatory notification of GRAS determinations which must be reached independently of any conflicts of interests (arising for example from a manufacturer’s own employees reaching the GRAS conclusion). In the midterm, it will be up to the US Congress to amend existing laws, making public review mandatory for any substance intentionally added to food, according to the NRDC report.
Neltner, T. et al. (2014) “Generally Recognized as Secret: Chemicals Added to Food in the United States (pdf)”. NRDC (published April 7, 2014).