In another sign of undue corporate influence, a new study has found widespread conflicts of interest by the people deciding whether food additives are determined to be "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) over the past 15 years.
The study was published on Wednesday in JAMA Internal Medicine.
The team of researchers looked at 451 voluntary notices manufacturers sent the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) between 1997 and 2012 that vouch for the safety of a specific additive, such as caffeine or a sweetener. A GRAS determination means that there is “a reasonable certainty in the minds of competent scientists that the substance is not harmful under the intended conditions of use."
In none of those cases was the safety assessment made by an outside panel, the researchers report; rather, "financial conflicts of interest were ubiquitous in determinations that an additive to food was GRAS."
The researchers write that
22.4% of the safety assessments were made by an employee of an additive manufacturer, 13.3% by an employee of a consulting firm selected by the manufacturer, and 64.3% by an expert panel selected by either a consulting firm or the manufacturer.
"If the company makes the decisions or picks the people, there are a lot of possibilities for undue influence," said Thomas Neltner, lead author and director of Pew's food additives project.
Further, writes NYU nutrition professor and Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health author Marion Nestle in an editorial accompanying the study,
the experts on these panels form a tight professional cadre. Although 850 people served on the panels, 10 experts served on 27 panels or more, and one of these 10 participated in three-quarters of the panels.
Patty Lovera, assistant director of the watchdog group Food & Water Watch, sees the findings as part of a trend of corporate influence jeopardizing food safety.
"From hijacking agricultural research to manipulating American foreign relations, to privatizing poultry inspection, we've known for a long time that undue industry influence threatens the wholesomeness and safety of the food supply, but this latest report is particularly troubling," Lovera stated.
"We've known for a long time that undue industry influence threatens the wholesomeness and safety of the food supply, but this latest report is particularly troubling."
-Patty Lovera, Food & Water Watch"Time and time again it has been proven that corporations cannot monitor themselves and it's fool-hearty and irresponsible for the FDA to expect them to," Lovera continued. "Food safety is too critical of an issue to leave in the hands of the corporations, and individuals with financial ties to those corporations, whose primary interest is their bottom line."
There's also the issue of the 1958 Food Additives Amendment, which allows manufacturers to determine when an additive is GRAS, and when that determination is made, the manufacturer is not required to inform the FDA of it.
"Rules governing the chemicals that go into a tennis racket are more stringent than (rules for) the chemicals that go into our food," USA Today quotes Neltner as saying. "At least when you put a new chemical on the market, you have to notify the EPA. But there's no requirement that you notify the FDA when you make a new food additive," he continued.
Nestle writes that the findings are "alarming," and says that the study "provides an important addition to the growing body of evidence for undue food industry influence on food safety policy."