— OPINION —
By Scott Faber
Anyone who cares about the safety of our food wishes that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had the resources protect consumers from dangerous food chemicals like those banned by AB 418, the California Food Safety Act, a bill that Governor Newsom may sign into law at any moment.
Unfortunately, we know the FDA will not protect us anytime soon. How do we know? The FDA told us.
In May, the FDA pledged to review chemicals of concern. But, in the same announcement, the FDA said doing so will require more funding and new legal powers.
Just days after the Congress nearly shut down the government over spending, does anyone think the Congress will give the FDA more funding? The agency will be lucky to keep the funding it has.
And ask California’s representatives in many Congress if they think the FDA will get new legal powers.
After decades of trying to get the agency the power to review the safety of toxic chemicals in cosmetics, Congress largely retained the honor system that has allowed dangerous chemicals into personal care products
The truth is that FDA’s food chemical review process is broken and will not be fixed anytime soon.
When it comes to food chemicals, the chemicals companies are in charge. We found 99 percent of the food chemicals that have entered the marketplace since 2000 were reviewed for safety by industry scientists, not the FDA.
But in those rare instances when the FDA reviews chemicals for safety, it does not evaluate old decisions – even if there is new evidence of their health harms.
Some chemicals, like pesticides, must be reviewed for safety by the EPA every 15 years. But there is no requirement for the FDA to periodically double check the safety of food chemicals.
As a result, the vast majority of the chemicals we consume in a host of foods and beverages every day have not been reviewed for safety for decades, if ever.
Two chemicals that would be banned by AB 418 – potassium bromate and propylparaben – and are linked to cancer and harm to the immune system, respectively, have not been reviewed for safety by the FDA in nearly half a century.
Pledges by the FDA to conduct safety reviews often go unfulfilled.
A 1990 promise to review the safety of Red No. 3, which is linked to cancer, was broken. In the case of BVO, a chemical used in soda, the FDA committed to a prompt safety review – in 1977. It’s never happened.
Adding a review of BVO, or brominated vegetable oil, to the federal government’s list of expected actions this year is more akin to a new year’s resolution to eat better – 80 percent of the FDA proposals added to the federal government’s “regulatory agenda” of upcoming actions are never completed.
Even when organizations petition the FDA, it is slow to act. In the case of BHA, a chemical that has been linked to cancer, the FDA has not responded to a petition to review it for 33 years.
It should be no surprise to Governor Newsom that a former FDA official would urge state officials to mind their own business.
But what might surprise him is that the FDA official in question was responsible for food safety response during one of the largest food safety failures in recent decades – the 2022 infant formula crisis – and then blamed the FDA’s “decentralized structure” in his resignation letter.
Governor Newsom should not heed the warnings of a former FDA official whose tenure included one of the most tragic and preventable food safety failures in decades. He should do what this official apparently failed to do: he should put the safety of consumers first.
We can’t go back in time and reverse the actions of FDA officials who did too little to prevent our baby food from becoming contaminated. But, we shouldn’t rely on empty promises by the same officials who have since left the agency.
About the author: Scott Faber is the senior vice president for government affairs for the Environmental Working Group and a former food industry executive.