Just below the fold in the print and digital versions of this morning’s Washington Post blares the headline “Food additives on the rise as FDA scrutiny wanes.” The story dutifully advances the perspective of professional activists that the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) process for food additives is perilously broken. Food nanny organizations such as Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Natural Resources Defense Council have ramped up their attacks on GRAS over the past several years, assisted by a 2010 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report calling for changes to the process.
As explained in a Washington Legal Foundation Legal Backgrounder by Hyman, Phelps & McNamara attorneys Roberto Carvajal and Nisha Shah, the GRAS process dates back to 1958, when Congress determined that certain uses of substances in foods that were generally recognized as safe need not go through formal FDA approval. For nearly four decades, FDA applied that exception very narrowly, but the Clinton-era agency leadership altered that interpretation in 1997. They concluded that narrow application of the GRAS exception deeply strained agency resources and chilled food industry innovation. The agency’s new approach permitted food processors to self-report new uses of certain substances and provide FDA with the science supporting the GRAS conclusion. In response to the critical 2010 GAO report, the agency acknowledged that while the GRAS process could be improved, “FDA believes that the GRAS concept has continuing utility as a practical tool for distinguishing between substances and new uses of substances that merit a full pre-market safety evaluation by FDA and those that do not.”
FDA’s resolve on the GRAS process seems to be weakening, however. The Post article features a troubling front-page quote from FDA’s Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor: “We simply do not have the information to vouch for the safety of many of these chemicals.” He goes on to proclaim later in the article, “We aren’t saying we have a public health crisis.” But of course Deputy Commissioner Taylor understands that when FDA uses the term “public health crisis,” even when denying the existence of one, it sounds alarm bells. FDA’s latest statements could be setting the stage for regulatory action against such common, widely-used ingredients as caffeine and sodium, which the agency has long considered GRAS.
For those who might be interested in learning more about the GRAS process from a far different perspective than the Washington Post provided today, watch WLF’s free July 10 Web Seminar, The Future of FDA’s “GRAS” Designation in an Era of Increased Scrutiny. The Powerpoint presentation utilized by our speakers, Keller and Heckman LLP’s Melvin Drozen and Evangelia Pelonis, is available here.