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The FDA's Outdated Rules Regarding Chemical Additives Might Be Making Us Sick


Imagine a reality where the driving laws are different. Instead of classes and a learner's permit and age requirements, we're all able to get behind the wheel as soon as we're tall enough to see over it. No training required. It's only after you get into an accident or cause property damage that the cops step in.

The system wouldn't make a whole lot of sense, right? The way to keep damage from happening in the first place is through proactive training and experience, not reactive punishment. Yet the latter method is essentially how the FDA's been handling chemical additives in our food.

Monday in Washington, D.C., the Grocery Manufacturers Association -- admittedly not our favorite organization, for somewhat obvious reasons -- held a science forum which included one very important presentation. It was a new report authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council that looks at a "legal loophole" food manufacturers have been exploiting for years in order to add chemicals without any oversight.

First, a bit of a history lesson: Back in 1958, the FDA established the Food Additives Amendment. This was intended to streamline getting certain foods through the approval process and into the marketplace by allowing a long list of items to be considered "Generally Recognized as Safe," meaning they wouldn't have to undergo testing. Things like vinegar or vegetable oil, items whose "safety had been established by a long history of use in food."

The decision, whether or not the additives could be considered GRAS, was not made by the FDA but instead by the food manufacturers. That made sense back then, seeing as there weren't a whole lot of chemicals being added to foods. But in the past 56 years, the food processing world has changed dramatically.

Now, because of this archaic rule, all the FDA can do is ask companies to "voluntarily inform" them when, you know, they feel like it. And how's that going? Of the 275 chemicals found in the study that were "marketed for use in food based on undisclosed GRAS safety determinations" by the companies, only six of them found their way in front of the FDA. That's not a very high percentage. And if companies did provide information and the FDA wanted to look a little deeper into them, they can just do some take-backsies and recall their information:

Using a Freedom of Information Act request, the NRDC identified four case studies in which a company withdrew its voluntary GRAS notice to the FDA after the agency brought forward concerns about the chemical's safety.

As you'd imagine, this method doesn't lead to a lot of transparency. In all, the NRDC claims the FDA hasn't reviewed the safety of more than 3,000 chemicals.

While just yesterday, I criticized the FDA for doing too much, that was a case of overextension without proof of danger. This is the opposite:

A company determined the use of Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) was safe in the production of 25 products including teas, sports drinks, and juices. However, documentation shows the FDA cited evidence the chemical may cause leukemia in fetuses in human cell tests and animal studies showing it affected the thyroid, testis, spleen, pituitary, liver and gastrointestinal tract.

To learn more -- especially if you're not in the mood to read the entire 14 page report -- check out the video summary released by the NRDC. It might be most frightening horror movie you'll see all year:

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