GRAS - “Generally Recognized as Safe” (or, maybe “Scary”)

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If you are an ingredients label reader, which, unfortunately, is a reality for any health conscious individual, then you are well aware of the crazy additives that go into our foods. You may not be aware, though that over the last 50 years, these additives have increased by almost 1200%! Kimberly Kindy of the Washington Post reports this week on the tricky world of FDA food additive regulations, validating label readers everywhere.

Kindy explains that one of the main reasons food additives have grown so much in number is that the FDA has relaxed its regulation of them. Almost twenty years ago, the Agency changed the protocol for designating foods as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), a moniker for additives that don’t need to be regulated. Where as before 1997 the GRAS designation was a long drawn out process, the new ruling on it allowed food companies to certify additives as GRAS:

In part, FDA officials hoped that by streamlining the GRAS notification process, companies that previously avoided informing the agency of new additives would be encouraged to keep the government in the loop, current and former agency officials said."

The changes didn’t work out as planned.

These changes have a led to an insurgence of products in our foods that are not as well tested as we would like them to be. Kindy goes onto explain that this is no secret and that stakeholders all acknowledge the problematic state of GRAS:

FDA officials, food safety advocates and the food industry all agree there are problems. There are too many cases in which the agency is not notified of new additives or the science remains secret. But there’s no consensus about how to fix the system."

Here’s advocating for a fix soon!

Partially in response to Kindy’s article, our friends at Center for Science in the Public Interest recently released a statement calling for the FDA protect consumers by banning “Quorn,” a meat substitute that contains a questionable and dangerous fungus based ingredient, which is designated as GRAS:

The vat-grown, fungus-based product should have set off alarm bells at the FDA at first glance. The fungus at issue, Fusarium venenatum, had never before been used in human food before it became Quorn. (“Venenatum,” inauspiciously, is Latin for poisonous.) As the Post points out, the company’s own study indicated that almost five percent of test eaters became ill after eating Quorn."

Quorn has responded, vigorously defending its products according to Elaine Watson of Food Navigator who gives a compelling account from Quorn executives about why it is safe. (The content is copyright protected, but it is certainly interesting to read).

Battles like this one between CSPI and Quorn go to show that better regulation of GRAS could go a long way in clearing up consumer confusion.

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