The 10,000+ identified chemicals are the ones regulators are aware of because industry petitioned them. However, the FDA offers an escape clause. The Pew Health Group describes it this way:
The manufacturer or a trade association decides a chemical’s use is “generally recognized as safe” or, in industry parlance, a “GRAS substance,” based on the opinion of experts in the field using published studies. In this case, it need not notify FDA, and the public has no involvement in the safety decision.
If the field experts were free of industry influence and had enough money to carry out independent studies, that might work. However, what that really means is that the fox is guarding the henhouse.
It is not difficult for a new ingredient to receive the GRAS (generally regarded as safe) stamp of approval if the scientists doing the research are working for or funded by the food processor. With the GRAS designation, the chemical goes straight into food. The manufacturer may run it by the FDA but is not required to do so. If they do, all the FDA can offer is a safety determination, which means no more than, “We don’t know if it is safe, but it looks as if your research was adequate.”
The Chicago Tribune characterizes the system this way:
But even when the FDA does examine safety determinations, at no point does it affirm the safety of the product. In fact, it specifically notes in each letter that the agency has “not made its own determination of the GRAS status.”
In 2010 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report that took the FDA to task. Among the troubling issues raised by the report, “FDA Should Strengthen Its Oversight of Food Ingredients Determined to Be Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS),”were these:
Next: What Is a Consumer To Do?
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