Does Food Product Testing Need Some Housecleaning?

Problematic relationships exist between scientists and food companies. Here’s what concerns us, and many others.  

For years now, according to a new review of publicly available data  from the Center for Public Integrity, a small cadre of former tobacco-industry scientists (who worked in the same industry that used “science” to argue that smoking wasn’t all that bad for us)  have now been hired by the food industry to help put their stamp of approval on new ingredients with potentially unknown health impacts. The report, authored by Chris Young and Erin Quinn, found that of 379 expert panels convened in the past 17 years, three-quarters of them included at least one of the same 10 scientists. The food industry argues that there are not a lot of qualified scientists out there to do this type of work, but Young and Quinn explain that potential conflicts of interest embedded in food testing data may affect our nation’s health.

If scientists depend on the food industry for income, they may be less likely to contest the safety of ingredients companies hope to market," critics say.

Food industries choose scientists to test their products because GRAS, the “Generally Recognized as Safe” FDA rule allows food companies to independently determine the safety of products. This might lead to potentially unsafe food additives entering the marketplace. Under GRAS, when a company wants a new additive or ingredient tested, it hires—yes, hires—a team of three scientists to give the review. The food company wants its product out in the marketplace as soon as possible, and the scientists want to be invited back.

It’s not a large universe of people,” said Steve Morris of the Government Accountability Office, which published a report in 2010 that cited financial conflicts of interest in the GRAS system as a concern. “The fact that there’s ... repetition and there’s familiarity, that could potentially breed a conflict.”

Back to the tobacco connection: GRAS rules were also a big part of getting tobacco products out on the market.  The report found that:

Of the top 10 most frequently hired GRAS panelists, four have worked as consultants for tobacco companies."

Working for tobacco companies does not necessarily mean that you are going to have loose scientific morals, however when we consider the blatant denial of cancer claims by the tobacco industry and the scientific corroboration that backed it up, and when we consider the similarities of and deep ties between the tobacco and food industry, it makes us a bit nervous to throw blind faith into as system that allowed the tobacco industry to so egregiously fail the health of our nation.

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Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson 

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