In order to serve your family healthy and nutritious food, you know to eat whole foods, including lean meats and fresh fruits and vegetables. When you use packaged foods, you read the label, seeking to avoid artificial ingredients as much as possible.
If you’re like most of us, you assume that the ingredients in that box of pasta or that cereal are safe. That’s what the FDA does, right? It tests ingredients to make sure they are safe.
Well, it turns out that the answer to that question is, “not necessarily.”
A new study by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization founded in 1989, found that about 1,000 ingredients found in products on our grocery store shelves were not approved by the FDA. How can this be?
Since 1958, food manufacturers have been able to use a loophole, called the Food Additives Amendment, to sometimes get around FDA approval. With this amendment, companies can say a product’s ingredients are “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), and thereby bypass the lengthy FDA approval process and any special package warnings that the agency might require.
“We simply do not have the information to vouch for the safety of many of these chemicals,” Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, told The Washington Post last year.
Many food manufacturers, food industry scientists and lawyers contend that food safety issues are overblown and that more government oversight would prevent the food innovations that consumers seek.
Tell that to the family of Miles Bengco. The 11-year-old boy was watching a basketball game on TV with his family and eating a burger made with a veggie product called Quorn when he had a severe allergic reaction. By the time an ambulance arrived, he had stopped breathing, and he died the next day.
The Bengco family believes Miles, who had a mold allergy, suffered a fatal allergic reaction to mycoprotein, a fungus-based ingredient in the Quorn burger he ate. Their lawsuit claims that mycoprotein was mislabeled on the package.
In 2002, the FDA approved the GRAS status of mycoprotein for use in certain foods. Since then, consumers have suffered a range of reactions after eating foods that contain mycoprotein, including nausea and anaphylactic shock. In fact, the Center for Science in the Public Interest urged the FDA in 2011 to deny GRAS status to the ingredient.
Another example of how this loophole puts consumers at risks is the use of lupin, a legume that is in the peanut family. In 2008, George Weston Foods, an Australian food manufacturer, sought FDA approval so that it could market its products, including pastries, cereals and breads containing lupin, to US customers. According to the recent CPI report, the FDA refused George Weston’s request, explaining that lupin could cause “life-threatening reactions” in consumers with peanut allergies. The FDA went on to say that warning labels would not be enough to decrease this threat.
Case closed? Not hardly. Products containing lupin flour, lupin protein and lupin fiber can be found on American shelves. Incredibly, many of these products contain no warning labels for people with peanut allergies.
How? Those food manufacturers labeled the ingredients as GRAS. When they did so, they did not have to inform the FDA about the ingredients and did not have to place any special warnings on their packages.
The FDA does require manufacturers to state when foods include any of the eight recognized allergens that cause 90 percent of allergic reactions in the United States. These allergens include peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, milk, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat and soy products. The problem is that lupin is not on that list yet.
The FDA  website currently states: “The law requires that food labels list the product’s ingredients. When lupin is present in a food, it is therefore required to be listed on the label. So, consumers wishing to avoid lupin — and those with peanut allergies, who need to be particularly careful — can identify its presence by looking for ‘lupin’ or ‘lupine’ on the label.” The website also states that the agency is “actively monitoring complaints of lupin allergies by U.S. consumers.”
Stuart Pape, a Washington, D.C., attorney who consults for companies that manufacture food additives, told CPI that the food additive review process is like a gridlocked highway. “GRAS is the other pathway,” he said.
In February of this year, The Center for Food Safety (CFS), a national non-profit public interest and environmental advocacy group, filed a lawsuit against the FDA, charging the agency has failed to protect the public from dangerous food additives.
In the past five decades since the Food Additives Amendment was put in place, the number of food additives in common products, ranging from muffins to energy bars to soft drinks, has jumped from about 800 to more than 10,000. Yet the average FDA approval process for a new ingredient takes two years.
As a result, more and more companies are turning to the GRAS loophole to get their products on the shelves. Even when ingredients are approved, it is difficult to track any potential long-term health effects they may cause.
So what can we do to keep ourselves and our families safe? Here are two ways:
- Avoid processed foods by eating a diet based on whole foods.
- Analyze label ingredients on any packaged foods. Visit the Center for Science in the Public Interest  website to learn about many food ingredients.
As Marion Nestle, author of the book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, writes, “Additives are in processed foods. … This is another reason to eat ones that have been minimally processed, if at all.”
Do you trust the FDA to police what’s in your food? Share your thoughts in the section below: