Grocery Manufacturers Give FDA a Peek Under the Labels

In a move meant to improve transparency by the food industry, the Grocery Manufacturers Association announced a plan to share more information with federal regulators about the chemicals that go into processed food.

If you don’t know your xanthan gum from your potassium benzoate or your yellow No. 5, don’t feel bad: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has struggled to get the full scoop about the chemicals commonly used in processed foods, largely leaving the job to the food industry.

But in a move that could increase the safety of what you put on your table—or at least improve transparency about what’s in it—the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) recently announced a plan to share information and set standards regarding food additives. More details:

About the plan: Last week, GMA announced that it would create and make available to the FDA a database of common food additives—including preservatives like potassium benzoate, food dyes like yellow No. 5, and thickeners like xanthan gum—along with the scientific data that the industry uses to determine that these additives are Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). On top of this, GMA said it will establish an industry standard for the process of conducting safety assessments before companies can label additives as GRAS, potentially with the assistance of the American National Standards Institute. Though the public will get some database access, according to the association, the FDA (along with GMA members) will get more. “We are confident that this initiative along with the industry’s efforts to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act will strengthen the food safety programs used by the entire food industry and thereby provide consumers more assurance that food products produced by U.S. manufacturers are and will remain the safest available in the world,” Dr. Leon Bruner, GMA’s chief science officer, said in a statement.

One critic won over: A key staffer for at least one organization that’s previously questioned food producers’ method of determining the safety of food additives found this news worthy of applause. “It’s good to see them acknowledge some of the problems with the system and take some positive steps forward,” Natural Resources Defense Council health scientist Tom Neltner told Politico. “We’re glad to see them making that move.” Nonetheless, Neltner noted, “the proof will be in the pudding.”  NRDC, known mostly for its environmental focus, has increased its food-policy work in the past year.

Too little, far too late? But some critics noted that the fact that the GMA initiative is seen as a big improvement only highlights the problem. “It is outrageous that FDA doesn’t already have the identity, much less the safety data, of all substances added to the nation’s food supply,” Laura MacCleery, the chief regulatory affairs attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a statement. Meanwhile, The Consumerist, a popular blog published by Consumers Union, called out the agency for lax oversight over many years. “So now, after 17 years of letting the food industry pretty much do what it wanted so long as it promised to be safe, the FDA will be able to see what these companies have been up to,” the site’s Chris Morran wrote.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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