Despite our best efforts to avoid added chemicals, the food and beverages we consume likely contain one or more of some 10,000 chemicals allowed to be added to foods. Some of these chemicals are known endocrine (hormone) disruptors linked to developmental, cognitive and other health problems in babies and adults.
Yet the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency charged with protecting our food from unsafe chemicals, hasn’t been doing the job Congress intended when it passed the 1958 Food Additives Amendment, according to a new citizen’s petition.
In terms of the potential harms of food additives and packaging, synthetic chemicals that affect hormones have additive or synergistic effects. An increasing number of studies suggest some food additives can interfere with a child’s hormones, growth, and development.
“We are pleased to join this important petition calling on the FDA to protect the public’s health by fully accounting for the cumulative health effects of the chemicals additives in our food,” said Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “This call for commonsense protections is essential to preventing disease and improving the nation’s health and wellbeing.”
The petition argues that the FDA’s regulatory approach contributes to the problem. Take PFAS chemicals, which have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, asthma and thyroid disease, as well as other illnesses. Called “forever” chemicals, because they never degrade in the environment, PFAS are so widespread that levels have been detected in the blood of 97 percent of Americans.
Although PFAS-containing products appear to impact the same biological receptor or mechanisms in the body as those that were banned, the FDA does not regulate the entire class of PFAS chemicals, but rather one specific chemical at a time.
Another part of the problem, according to the petition, is the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) law. Companies use this loophole to save them from FDA review if the new chemical or additive was known to be safe.
So how can the FDA address a decision that impacts some 10,000 chemicals that are allowed in food? By law, the FDA has 180 days to approve, deny, dismiss or give a tentative response to any citizen petition.
But the agency will likely need additional funding to accomplish this goal. Compared to the drug approval side of the FDA, the food safety and nutrition divisions are chronically underfunded. Because of this, the process of even considering this petition could take years.
The petition’s main argument is that it’s the FDA’s responsibility to step up and take the burden of avoiding these chemicals away from consumers.