International bestselling author Isabel Allende discusses her new memoir, "The Soul of a Woman," a reflection on feminism in our society, and in her own personal life.
Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
Americans get more than half of their daily meals from processed foods, many of which contain food additives. More than 9,000 additives, ranging from chemical preservatives to green-tea extract, are currently in the food supply. But consumer advocates warn that companies certify the safety many of these substances without FDA oversight. Several research studies indicate some additives may be linked to health problems, including allergies and intestinal disorders. Guest host Tom Gjelten of NPR and a panel of guests discuss the oversight of food additives.
- Erik Olson Senior strategic director for health and food, Natural Resources Defense Council; former director of food programs at Pew Health Group.
- Kimberly Kindy National reporter, The Washington Post.
- Michael Taylor Deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the Food and Drug Administration.
- Emilia Lonardo Vice president of consumer product safety and science policy, Grocery Manufacturers Association.
MR. TOM GJELTENAnd thanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's been having a voice treatment, but she'll be back on Monday. More than 9,000 additives are in the food supply. They range from seaweed extract to chemical flavorings, but consumer advocates warn that in many cases, companies certify the safety of these substances without any FDA oversight.
MR. TOM GJELTENWith me here in the studio to talk about food additives, health concerns and new pressure for more oversight, we have Michael Taylor with the FDA, Kimberly Kindy with The Washington Post, Erik Olson with the National Resources Defense Council and Emilia Lonardo with the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Thanks to all of you for coming in.
MR. MICHAEL TAYLORThank you.
MS. KIMBERLY KINDYThank you.
MR. ERIK OLSONThank you for having us.
MS. EMILIA LONARDOThank you.
GJELTENThis is a show about what you consume so you all need to be part of the discussion. You can call us. Our phone number is 1-800-433-8850. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can send in comments or you can send in questions with Facebook or Twitter. Michael Taylor from the FDA, let's start with you. So when -- let's talk about how the process is supposed to work when new ingredients are added to the food supply. What, in theory, is the way that a new additive should be dealt with?
TAYLORFirst, Tom, let me just say we appreciate the chance to have this conversation and we appreciate the attention that our program is getting. The framework for the way the system works really goes back 56 years to a law that Congress passed to address the safety of food additives, chemicals and other substances being added to food. And the idea there was to create a premarket approval system. This was in response to changes that were happening in the food supply, chemical technology was being developed and applied to food processing and production in new ways.
TAYLORAnd there was consensus then that we really needed to have a system that would insure that the decisions about entry of these chemicals into the marketplace would be made objectively, they'd be made rigorously, in terms of a proper standard and adequate data to judge safety and that they would be transparent, that the public would know the basis for these decisions. And so the 1958 law created a premarket approval system for the first time, which would have FDA, you know, making the decisions under a congressionally prescribed safety standard and with the basis for those decisions in the public domain.
GJELTENFor each and every additive?
TAYLORWell, for each and every food additive. And this is the wrinkle that, I think, creates much of today's controversy. Congress built into the definition of food additive and thus into the determination of what substances required this premarket review by FDA the so-called generally recognized as safe concept. So substances that are judged generally recognized as safe are not legally food additives and they can remain in food or be added to food without any FDA review.
TAYLORIt's important if I can just take a moment to kind of lay the foundation for our discussion because to understand what this so-called generally recognized as safe concept is, the acronym is GRAS, they use that term, but it stands for generally recognized as safe, it was primarily a measure for Congress to say as a practical matter, many chemicals and many food ingredients have been used for decades. Scientists agree they're safe. There's no need to go back and reestablish their safety and so Congress, we think prudently, said these don't need to go through a formal FDA review.
TAYLORBut this provision was also written so that new substances or new uses of old substances could come into the market if the companies judge them to be generally recognized as safe. So that's where it gets complicated, you know, because chemicals and, in fact, the majority of new uses and new uses of chemicals are coming into the food supply based upon these company determinations.
GJELTENOkay. Kimberly Kindy, take it from there. So Congress creates this exception and what happens? Michael Taylor just said that the FDA view was this was a prudent move by Congress, but what happened?
KINDYRight. Well, there's some debate over exactly what the congressional intent was when it comes to generally recognized as safe. Certainly, they were recognizing that vinegar, baking soda, a number of things that have been in the food supply for a very long time and for which there's very well established science, you know, in terms of its safety, that those things shouldn't go through a super strict formal review process by the FDA.
KINDYBut I don't think that what they envisioned and what has happened, I think those things are totally different. The bottom line is, we don't know about many of the chemicals that are in our food now. When it comes to generally recognized as safe, the regulations that FDA put together after the 1958 law allowed people, companies to go off and do their science and not reveal it either to the FDA or publically.
KINDYAnd it was written in a way that was so vague that we don't have them publishing their science in places where the FDA can review it or the public can review it or even the scientific community can review it. It has eroded to the point where you have companies that are approving chemicals on their own with one company employee sometimes saying that it's safe and publishing it sometimes in an internal newsletter. That's their definition of public science.
KINDYAnd FDA is never notified about it so nobody's reviewing the science, not the scientific community, not people outside of that company and not the FDA.
GJELTENWell, Erik Olson, as a result of that, how much of the problem here is uncertainty, which is what Kimberly Kindy is talking about, or do we now know that some unsafe substances have actually entered the food supply as a result of this lack of review?
OLSONWe are worried that there are unsafe substances that have entered the food supply because of a lack of FDA review. We've issued a series of reports that have highlighted some of those. And, amazingly, in some cases, the companies were looking for some advantage in the marketplace and they asked FDA to take a look at their additive. FDA raised questions. They withdrew their request for FDA approval and then these chemicals ended up in the food supply anyway.
OLSONSo that's an extreme example, but there are many other chemicals that, over the years, have crept into the food supply and we read about them in the newspapers all the time, chemicals ranging from phthalates to perchlorates to bisphenol A, et cetera. There are a lot of them that either have been self-approved as GRAS or that have been approved many, many years ago without review since then.
OLSONSo this generally recognized as safe concept is certainly one of the central problems where the companies that have a clear conflict of interest can make their own secret determination that something is safe without telling FDA. That's not a regulatory program and it needs to be fixed.
GJELTENWell, Emilia Lonardo, you are vice president of consumer product safety at the Grocery Manufacturers Association. From your point of view and from your association's point of view, how did this situation develop? I mean, are you just not able to take all your research to the FDA or are you not asked to what happens?
LONARDOThank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity. Our members, the food industry, is committed to produce safe and affordable foods and good companies have a long history of producing safe food and innovative food. And, in part, it's due to the generally recognized as safe criteria and process.
GJELTENAnd how does that -- why does that make it easier to create innovative foods, like you said?
LONARDOGenerally recognized as safe is -- these ingredients have been on the -- science has been available for some time because it's publically available. It is not generally recognized unless the science is available and it's reviewed by experts. Dossiers are prepared. The science is available. There's nothing secret about it. Once an ingredient enters the food supply, it is placed on the label. So if you pull the label, you will see, you know. We really encourage our consumers to read the label. You will see the ingredient on the label.
LONARDOThe information on safety on that ingredient is publically available if it went through the generally recognized as safe criteria.
GJELTENBut isn't it true that sometimes these ingredients identified in the label are identified only in pretty generic ways and not the actual chemical that is maybe being added?
LONARDOYes. That is true. However, it's very easy to find that chemical name from that ingredient. You could also feel free to call the company. The consumer centers at these companies can be very helpful to a consumer. We understand that consumer confidence is the most important thing in addition to safety on these products. And so GMA, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, together with other industry stakeholders have initiated a five-part strategy to help bring transparency of the process to all stakeholders.
LONARDOI think that's going to be very important to bring consumer confidence and understand that this is a robust process.
GJELTENAnd I'm gonna give you the opportunity to explain some of the stages in that process. But back to you, first, Michael Taylor. From the FDA, you said, in the beginning, that the FDA view was that the creation of this generally recognized as safe waiver, if that was the proper term, was a prudent move from your agency's point of view. How do you feel now? Do you feel satisfied with the process that exists now?
TAYLORNo. We don't. I think the construct, recognizing that there's some substances in food that have a history of use in food don't require further FDA review, that's -- there's some prudence to that as a practical kind of resource matter. But the way this concept has played out, this legal -- and I just have to clarify, you know, Kimberly's point. Congress created the generally recognized as safe construct and created the legal option for companies to make these decisions on their own subject to our having to then go and prove that the substance is not generally recognized as safe.
TAYLORSo that's a statutory thing. I think it's important to know that because when we think about fixes to the problem, and there is a need for fixes to the problem, you know, we've got to look both what FDA can do and what Congress might want to do if it, you know, considers this to be worthy of attention. But no, we are concerned that we are not hearing about, we are not being notified about substances being added to food.
TAYLORWe have a program that encourages notification on a voluntary basis and we get in the realm of 30 or 40 notifications a year. Over time, about 20 percent of those aren't successful, which says to us, meaning we either rejected or the notification is withdrawn. So what's happening with the ones we don't hear about?
GJELTENMichael Taylor is from the FDA where he's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. We're talking about food additives and the FDA's role in overseeing them. Gonna take a short break right here. Stay tuned.
GJELTENHello again. I'm Tom Gjelten. I'm sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about additives in our food supply and the role of the FDA in overseeing the placement of those additives and ensuring the safety of those additives. My guests all here in the studio are Michael Taylor from the FDA, also Kimberly Kindy, a national reporter with the Washington Post, Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health and food at the National -- Natural Resources Defense Council, and Emilia Lonardo, vice president of consumer product safety and science policy for the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
GJELTENErik Olson, just before the break, Michael was saying how few of the additives that get introduced into the food supply are actually reviewed at the FDA. Now, your agency actually carried out a Freedom of Information Act request in order to find out how often that is happening. And share with us what you've learned.
OLSONWe did. We completed a study that asked the Food and Drug Administration for their records about chemicals that were proposed to be cleared by FDA. But we also looked in a wide variety of internal industry documents and reports. And we had evaluated over 275 chemicals from 56 companies that had been self-cleared by the companies without disclosure to the public and without, in many cases, disclosure at all to FDA.
OLSONWe actually asked the companies for the underlying data that would support why they thought the chemical was generally recognized as safe. Most of them did not give us the underlying data. So it's -- basically it's hard for us to understand how something can be generally recognized as safe if the name of the chemical wasn't public. The studies that supposedly are the basis of the finding that it was safe are not public. And the FDA doesn't even know about it. How is that generally recognized as safe? It's simply not.
GJELTENWell, I'm sure Emilia Lozano (sic) wants to respond to that. Before we get to that, Kimberly, I'm still a little unclear here, who gets to decide whether something needs FDA approval or not? Who gets to decide whether something is -- some additive is generally recognized as safe?
KINDYThe food industry does. If they decide that they want to do a self-determination that something is generally recognized as safe, they can go off and do that and never notify the FDA. In fact...
GJELTENIs that what Congress -- is that -- is that flow directly from the legislation?
KINDYI think that you would have to go back and probably talk to members of Congress in 1958. But there is nothing in the legislative history that suggests that they felt that new novel ingredients -- in fact, it explicitly says that new novel ingredients or ingredients that are used in new and novel ways, they absolutely were not supposed to end up in the generally recognized as safe category. They absolutely were not supposed to be ingredients that food companies on their own determine were safe.
KINDYAnd I would actually very much take exception with the fact -- with what was said about the science being public. I had the same exact experience as NRDC, it looked at an new novel ingredient, green tea extract that FDA actually looked at and raised major concerns about it and talked to two companies that went off to their own self-determination on the safety of it, did not notify the FDA. And when I asked them for the science -- the underlying science for what determined that it was safe, they refused to give it to me. So this is not publicly available science. And this is not what was originally intended.
GJELTENWell, Emilia Lozano (sic) , you did say earlier that this research is publicly available. But in saying that, you suggested, for example, that consumers may need to call up the company and find out what exactly is the ingredient that they're talking about and what is the research that makes them think it's safe. Is that really publicly available information? I mean, it does -- it sounds like it's -- it requires an awful lot of initiative in the part of the consumer.
LONARDOThe label will contain the name of the ingredient in the product. That is a requirement. So the ingredient is disclosed. If the consumer has questions regarding that specific ingredient, they can call the company. They are also free to contact the Grocery Manufacturers Association. I am happy work with the consumer. The generally recognized as safe means exactly that, generally recognized as safe. Legitimate companies will follow the criteria specified in the law.
LONARDOA panel of experts, these are toxicologists who are experts. Most of the time they are independent of the company. They will do a panel review. If these experts determine that these ingredient is not safe, the ingredient is not safe. It will not be used in the food supply. I understand that will all processes, there's always room for improvement. And it's been 56 years since this law has been in place. I do not know of any major issue that has -- a safety that's arise from the food in a GRAS ingredient.
LONARDOThe U.S. has one of the safest food supplies in the world. The GRAS process has served America well. And with the -- as time goes on, all processes can be improved and we have initiative to improve that process.
GJELTENBut you said legitimate companies will seek legitimate experts to do this review, but there's no safeguards, it sounds like. I mean, what about illegitimate companies? And, you know, what do we, as consumers, what kind of assurance do we have that this review process is actually a sound one? None, it sounds like.
LONARDOFDA has the authority to remove any ingredient from the food supply or any product that they deem unsafe, that it is adulterated. FDA has done their job well and they will remove ingredients and food from the food supply if the ingredient is not safe.
GJELTENMichael Taylor, you're from the FDA. Are you satisfied with the recourses that you have?
TAYLORWe are limited in our practical ability to monitor the thousands of ingredients in the food supply, whether they've come in through an FDA approval process or the GRAS process. I mean, I think one of the keys here is that -- is that the uses of chemicals evolve over time. And one of the things that's happened with the application of the GRAS concept is that chemicals, if they have been approved for one use or a use for additional uses, so that you have a question of what's the cumulative exposure, you know.
TAYLORAnd we do not have information that permits us to systematically monitor that. And that's one of the major challenges under this law, which relies on our post-market oversight as opposed to a strong pre-market program.
GJELTENWell, Kimberly, one of the things that has changed since 1958 is the use of food additives. I said in the intro, 9,000 food additives are now in the food supply. What has -- what explains this explosion of the -- in the use of food additives?
KINDYWell, it's at least 9,000. That's the number that can be identified. And there are a number of things that you see on the labels that are artificial ingredients, natural ingredients or flavorings. We don't know what that chemical is. So there -- we know it's more than 9,000. But the reason why it's exploded so much is, you know, our love of processed foods. We want everything to be, you know, something you can microwave in a minute.
KINDYAnd, you know, first it was, you know, junk food and now it's this faux health food that you see. And what the manufacturers have learned is that if you add certain ingredients, you can take something that's low fat that used to taste like cardboard and make it have a pleasant texture and taste. And that there are certain ingredients that you can add that can do this, and they're always looking for new ones so that we can feel good about the food that we stick in the microwave or in the oven for a minute or two and eat it. But it's largely driven by the processed foods.
GJELTENWell, as Emilia said, there's a natural reaction by industry to innovate and to produce new food products that do respond to these consumer interests. Erik Olson, Emilia was saying -- pointing out that the FDA, in the end, does have the authority to remove additives that it considers unsafe. How effective is that authority?
OLSONTo be blunt, completely ineffective. And there are several reasons for that. One is, out of the nine to 10,000 food additives, most of those are not required to be put on the label. The chemical name is not required to be put on the label for a variety of reasons.
GJELTENGive us an example.
OLSONFor example, artificial flavors or artificial -- some of the packaging materials, extracts, a lot of them are in generic terms. So the actual chemical name is not in there. Chemicals that are upstream that end up in the food that were used to process it. There are literally thousands of these that are not actually disclosed on the label. So, in addition, we believe that there are at least a thousand of these self-determined chemicals that are generally recognized as safe based on some published information.
OLSONSo if FDA doesn't even know about the additive being put in the food supply, it's very difficult for FDA to then step in and say, we think this additive is unsafe when they don't even know that it exists.
GJELTENWell, Emilia, is -- we've been talking about how the food industry has evolved and changed in these many years since this law was passed in 1958. Is the Grocery Manufacturers Association, your members, are you open to sort of revisiting some of these issues? Are you open to sort of revising some of the authorities that -- or strengthening some of the authorities that the FDA has? Or are you insistent that it should just be up to the industry itself to deal with this issue?
LONARDOIndustry has worked hand in hand with FDA for many years. And we are committed to providing safe, quality food. We are also committed to working with the FDA. With the Food Safety Modernization Act that is in progress right now, the law has been passed. The food industry has revolutionized many different processes. And at this time, you know, we feel that it is the appropriate time to modernize the generally recognized as safe process as well. And we have met with FDA and had several discussions regarding this. And we have rolled out the five-part strategy.
GJELTENAnd I believe that you -- and as part of that strategy, you are providing the FDA with more of the underlying data that has led you to conclude that certain additives are safe.
LONARDOYes. The process remains the same. It will be more transparent. The information will be made more publicly available, not only to the consumer, but also to the FDA.
GJELTENYou know, one question that I have, Michael, is -- Michael Taylor from the FDA -- is we've heard a lot in recent years about budget cutbacks at the FDA. What's the situation there now with regard to your staff resources, your research resources, you know, your ability to carry out the functions that your agency was given -- was assigned when it was created?
TAYLOROur resource situation is challenging to say the least. The center within FDA that I oversee, the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition has about the same permanent staffing levels now as it had in the early 1990s. And everybody knows the massive changes in the food system, the increased complexity, the advances in technology that have occurred. And we have struggled to keep up with that. And that's part of the picture here, because, again, in addition to the way the law is structured, there are practical limits on our ability with the current resources to address some of these issues.
TAYLORSo we've got to address both the policy side of this and the resource side of it. If we're going to achieve what I think there's a lot of agreement we should be achieving, which is a level of oversight that assures people that -- that these ingredients are safe and that there's a basis for public confidence in these ingredients. You know, we don't feel like we have a public health crisis here with respect to chemical additives, but we do have, I think, legitimate set of questions beings raised about the system of oversight and can people have confidence in it.
GJELTENMichael Taylor from the FDA. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And a lot of callers are lining up with questions or complaints maybe. Remember, our phone number is 1-800-433-8850 and we'll be getting to those calls in just a couple of minutes. First of all, Kimberly, Emilia mentioned this law that has now been passed, right? Tell us a little bit more about what has happened sort of -- on the legislative front with regard to this issue.
KINDYI think Mike Taylor is going to be a better source for you on that.
GJELTENAll right, go ahead, Mike. She just kicked it to you.
TAYLORWell, I love the opportunity to talk about the Food Safety Modernization Act. This was enacted in 2011 in response to outbreaks of food-borne illness associated with a wide variety of food commodities -- produce commodities. Very visible, peanut butter outbreaks, a wide array of concerns. And so, it's an effort to really modernize the way in which the food industry and FDA work to prevent these problems. So it's a sweeping overhaul of our food safety system focused primarily on reducing the risk associated with bad bacteria in food.
GJELTENOkay. Erik Olson, we've been talking so far in very general terms. Let's just, for a minute, zero in on a couple of additives that might be problematic. I know that some food safety advocates are concerned about foods that contain quorn. Is that how you say it?
GJELTENTell us about that.
OLSONWell, quorn, spelled with a Q...
OLSON...is a protein that's made out of a form of fungus basically. It's a mycoprotein, it's called. And there have been concerns in a lot of reports of people that have had allergic reactions, in some cases, severe allergic reactions to this chemical being in their food. And that -- I think it's just an illustration of why we really need to modernize this law because we need a reporting scheme, we need an information gathering authority for FDA.
OLSONWhat hasn't been mentioned is FDA doesn't really have clear authority to order companies to do testing or to order companies to supply data, as many other regulatory agencies do in other context. So that's one example that just illustrates the massive shortcomings of the current regulatory scheme that really need to be updated. And in response to the question about the lack of resources for FDA, we totally agree that's a serious problem.
OLSONWe actually have proposed that there'd be a fee system where the industry would pay a small fee in order to get FDA to approve their food additives just as the drug industry pays FDA to review the safety of drugs. The pesticide industry pays EPA to review the safety of pesticides. We think we ought to have the same kind of scheme for chemicals being added to the food supply.
GJELTENNow you say chemicals, but some of the additives are actually organic, right? And, you know, I want to talk for a minute maybe when we come back after a break about carrageenan, which is not a chemical additive, but yet there are some issues around it, right? Emilia?
LONARDOI don't believe there's any issues. It has been determined to be safe.
GJELTENIt's made from seaweed.
LONARDOYes, it's a seaweed product. It's been in the food supply for years.
GJELTENWell, there may be debate about that. I do want to get back after the break to talk about some of these individual additives that are sneaking into the food supply without, according to food safety advocates, without adequate supervision or publicly available research about their impact. My guests are Michael Taylor, he's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the Food and Drug Administration, Kimberly Kindy, a national reporter with the Washington Post.
GJELTENErik Olson, a senior strategic director for health and food at the National -- Natural Resources Defense Council, and Emilia Lonardo, vice president of consumer product safety and science policy for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Lots of callers with specific questions about additives they're concerned about. We're going to take a short break. And we come back, we'll go straight to the phones. Stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm sitting in for Diane today. We're talking about food additives in the food supply and the oversight of the process by which those ingredients are added with my guests Michael Taylor from the FDA, Kimberly Kindy from The Washington Post, Erik Olson from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Emilia Lonardo from the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
GJELTENAnd Kimberly, right before the break, we were talking about carrageenan and quorn, but there are some better known ingredients that are, in fact, controversial and around which there are issues about whether more research should have been disclosed about their health effects. You mentioned caffeine, for example.
KINDYRight. So that's a really good example of the FDA determining that something is generally recognized as safe, but in a very limited way. They said it's okay for it to be put in sodas, but what has happened in recent years is something that is very dangerous. The FDA had to go after beverage companies that were putting caffeine in alcoholic beverages marketing it to basically kids and kids were dying.
KINDYThe companies are going off on their own and making these determinations that caffeine is generally recognized as safe and that it's okay to put it in things that are marketed to kids. Marshmallows, waffles, caffeinated waffles, they're on the market. And the amount of overload on caffeine that is happening with kids is extremely dangerous.
GJELTENEmilia, what would be the reason for putting caffeine in marshmallows?
LONARDOI'm sorry. I don't really...
GJELTENYou didn't know that caffeine was in marshmallows.
LONARDONo, I am aware. It is not one of our members. So I can't really speak to why someone would put caffeine in a marshmallow.
GJELTENWell, can you talk about the use of caffeine more generally in a variety of foods, whether it's marshmallows or waffles or anything else?
LONARDOYes. Caffeine, at particular levels, are safe in food. The FDA, the IOM have studied caffeine. Caffeine has been in our food supply, naturally occurring in numerous plants, coffee, cocoa, and it is safe to be consumed at particular levels.
GJELTENParticular levels. That's an important point.
LONARDOAs with all ingredients, it needs to be in the food supply. It needs to be in as an additive for a particular use at a particular level and that determines the generally recognized as safe. If there are companies that are not following the generally recognized as safe criteria for caffeine added to food, FDA should go after those companies.
GJELTENWell, I think that what we're going to find as we engage in this discussion is that the key word in that recognized as safe phrase is generally because how general really is that recognition that these additives are safe. I want to go now to Patrick who's on the line from East Lansing, Michigan. Hello, Patrick, thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
PATRICKHi. Thanks for taking my call. I have a quick question about food dyes and I just got into this because my brother-in-law got PhD in biochemistry and he's an eye surgeon now, but -- a medical doctor. But 25 years later, he was just having a holiday meal with his professor who was researching food dyes and their cancer-causing properties and he came back and told us all the stuff that this gentleman had learned in the last 15 years over the food dyes and cancer.
PATRICKSo I started wondering about it and stumbled onto the fact that the Subway sandwich that I eat with my veggie sub has this Azodicarbonamide that is what gives the air to the yoga mats and started to follow the fact that my daughter's eating it in her Kraft -- there's other dyes similar to this one. This is a food additive. The yellow dyes in my daughter's Kraft Mac 'N Cheese was causing a problem and then there was this caramel coloring dye that Consumer Reports was talking about.
PATRICKAnd in each of those cases, Subway faced a huge boycott and blogger campaign and got rid of the Azodicarbonamide. The Kraft Mac 'N Cheese faced a huge boycott and got rid of the yellow dyes and the caramel coloring came out of a bunch of sodas. And I was unclear where the FDA was and where the research was. So my real question is, since I was talking to a primary researcher through my brother-in-law and realizing how much research there was on the hazardous properties, you know, Europe banned it.
PATRICKAustralia banned it. It causes allergies and asthma. My daughter is deathly allergic and has been in the hospital twice for asthma. So I just wonder, what's the research on the food dyes that's at war with the permissive use of them widely in the food supply?
GJELTENOkay. Well, we have someone from the FDA here, Michael Taylor. First of all, before you answer that, Michael, what's interesting to me and what Patrick just said, is that you've had cases where consumers have just bypassed the FDA, found the research on their own, mounted boycott campaigns and gotten action taken by companies. The FDA is out of the loop in that process.
TAYLORLook, and the consumer is sovereign in our food system as it should be and that's one way in which consumers act on the food system.
GJELTENBut what about the question -- that's okay, but let's talk about the particular question that Patrick had, which is food dyes.
TAYLORWell, that's an interesting question because the way Congress set up the law, interestingly, there is a separate statute that governs FDA approval of color additives, food dyes. That law does not have this generally recognized as safe exception. So if a substance, in part, is color to food, it's required to come to FDA. So we actually know a lot about the colors that are added to food and, you know, we're aware of the sensitivity issue around some of the food dyes.
TAYLORWe've looked at that. We've convened expert advisory committees. You know, that's something that's on our radar screen, but it's based upon a lot of information as opposed to ignorance about the issue.
GJELTENErik Olson, do you have a comment here?
OLSONYes. We are concerned about some of the artificial food colorings. Some of them have been suggested to be linked to behavioral issues with children that are fed them. And this is another case where, although FDA theoretically is supposed to approve these, many of them were approved many years ago. FDA doesn't have the resources, frankly, to go back and do a comprehensive review of some of them.
OLSONFDA doesn't have the authority to mandate additional testing. So, again, it highlights some of the problems where we're often eating chemicals in our food supply based on very old information or data that's never made public.
GJELTENLet's go now to Ted who's on the line from Clearwater, Florida. Hello, Ted. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
TEDYes. And good morning. Now, several years ago -- and this was, I guess, along the lines of your previous caller who mentioned Subway. But I worked for a local commercial bakery here who sold primarily to bars, restaurants and so forth. And one of their ingredients -- and I've since found the name since I spoke to your screener -- that they used was ABA or Azodicarbonamide something along those lines, which is an ingredient in the making of rubber mats for automobiles and other plastic products.
TEDThis particular ingredient has long been banned around the world and not only banned, but in several countries, you're looking at, I think, it was a $200,000 fine for using it in your product and in some cases, jail time.
GJELTENWell, I think that's probably the same ingredient the previous caller was talking about. He said it was used in yoga mats.
TEDYes. So Subway uses it as well, or they did. I think it's been recently banned here. But when you go into these places, you have no idea what the ingredients are that they're using so I'm wondering how can this happen? How can they be allowed to do that for so many years?
GJELTENWell, what is -- yeah, what's the answer to that? Why is it, Emilia Lonardo, why is it that, you know, there seem to be stricter standards in other -- is this true that there are stricter countries that here in the United States?
LONARDOI can't speak to the standards in various countries. I know that here in the U.S., the generally recognized as safe criteria, if done according to the regulations and the law, has safe -- produces safe ingredients. So, you know, FDA has oversight, the experts within the companies and the hired experts review all of the information. These are board-certified toxicologists who determine the safety of the ingredients.
LONARDOAnd you also have to remember the dose is extremely important. So if you have ingredients that have a particular function that's placed in food at de minimis levels, there's no safety hazard at that level. If you add it above and beyond the safety levels, then you will have an issue, but that's not what GRAS is about.
GJELTENLet's go now to Christina who's on the line from Baltimore. Hello, Christina.
CHRISTINAHi there. How are you guys?
GJELTENGood. Thanks for calling.
CHRISTINAGreat. I just had wanted to make the comment that, you know, a lot of people really rely on the FDA or really the masses to educate themselves on what's in food. And I just think it's really important to do your own researching to kind of find out that eating whole foods is best for you. You know, you can make foods very simply by just getting ingredients that come from the vegetables, you know, tomatoes. You can make your own pasta.
CHRISTINAYou don't really have to buy, like, you know, processed foods. And the blame is really going on, I think, the FDA a lot and these big companies because they're maybe steering your wrong. But if you do your own research by simply going online, there's a lot of web pages, a lot of blogs, a lot of things like that where you can kind of educate yourself and make your own choices based on what you find there.
GJELTENWell, Christina, in fact, I think it was Patrick earlier who pointed out that sometimes additives have been taken out of the food supply precisely in response to consumer pressure. So that reinforces your point.
GJELTENErik Olson, you have a comment.
OLSONI do. Well, I would agree that certainly there are things consumers can do to eat less processed foods or to eat foods that are straight out of the garden. But the problem is that the vast majority of food Americans eat is processed food or packaged food. And for now, we don't have a system that's insuring that protection. With respect to other countries, no other country in the world has a generally recognized as safe exception where companies can just introduce a new additive without any governmental review.
OLSONSo we are definitely bringing up the rear in term of safety reviews in the United States.
GJELTENIt's an interesting question that was emailed in from Steve in Potomac, Maryland. He's wondering why are there no ingredient labels on beer. Craft beers have all sorts of ingredients and yet they're not identified on the label. Craft beer has really taken off, Michael Taylor. Why are the ingredients not listed on beer bottles?
TAYLORYeah. This is going to sound bureaucratic, but interestingly the TTB, the agency in the Department of Treasury that regulates alcoholic beverages, regulates the labeling of alcoholic beverages and...
GJELTENSo that's outside your jurisdiction.
TAYLOR...it's outside our jurisdiction.
GJELTENBut it's food. I mean, it's -- people take in. You would think that...
TAYLORThere's been litigation. The court decided that they have the authority. We don't, so.
GJELTENAnd David from Greensboro, North Carolina is wondering -- he writes, "Assuming that each company does proper research in its own bailiwick, does anyone do overarching research to bring all this together? If company A finds its product safe and company B does the same, does anyone conduct research to find out if there are any interactions between these products when ingested in the human body at essentially the same time?"
GJELTENNow, that's an interesting question. I'm gonna put that to you, Emilia, after we remind out listeners that this is "The Diane Rehm Show." But that would be -- that is a clear scenario where some kind of overarching research capability is needed. It's not just a matter of ingredient A, ingredient B, ingredient C.
LONARDOThat's a very interesting question. We have not looked at interactions very similar to interactions with drug ingredients, in terms of food ingredients. There has not been a public health issue that I am aware of, in terms of the combination of ingredients in the food supply, and I'm certain if there was an issue, the FDA would identify that issue and handle the safety.
GJELTENLet's go now to Tyler who's on the line from Louisiana. Hello, Tyler, thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
TYLERHi. I was really hoping you all would get to my question so I'm glad. I have to thank you.
GJELTENThere you go.
TYLERIt's for GMA, Emilia. I just had a really quick question. I understand that you're very for transparency when it comes to all these food additives, yet the GMA is very against labeling genetically-modified foods for the population and they've spend a lot of money trying to make sure it didn't get on the ballots in a few states, it didn't pass. So I'm curious on where the line is drawn for transparency when it comes to thing. If you think it's safe, why would you not want to let people know what's in their food? And I'll take my -- thank you.
GJELTENThank you, Tyler. A lot of questions, actually. We're not going to be able to get to them all, about genetically-modified additives. Do you want to take that question on?
LONARDOWell, thank you very much. I'm not prepared to speak on genetically-modified food. I know that FDA has determined that there is no difference between genetically-modified as well as inherent products. But I'm not really prepared to speak on genetically-modified organisms today. We're here to talk about food additives.
GJELTENErik, you're willing to talk about it.
OLSONI am willing to talk about it. Let me just first say that we're not necessarily -- our belief is not that genetically-modified food is going to make you sick from eating it after it's processed. We're not saying that. But we do believe that consumers have a right to know about whether their food has been produced with genetically-modified organisms. So we think it's a right to know issue. And often, one of the big issues here is that most of these genetically-modified organisms that are used in food crops are being used because the crops are resistant to herbicides.
OLSONSo vast increases in herbicides like Roundup have resulted from the use of those and consumers ought to be able to choose for or against those.
GJELTENOkay. We're just about out of time. But Kimberly, just look ahead here a little bit. What do you see happening? I know that there is the Center For Food Safety is suing the FDA. There's talk about legislation on Capitol Hill, new legislation. Where do you see this issue going in the next few weeks or months?
KINDYWell, I know that the FDA is looking at potential reforms. One of the reforms that a lot of people are talking about -- and this would require Congress stepping up to the plate and doing something, would be to make sure that they have what they need if food companies are ordered to let them know, notify them about generally recognized as safe determinations. In order for them to review those determinations, they have to have staff.
KINDYAnd a lot of people are talking about it should reflect kind of what happens with the drug world. If you want something new out there as a drug, you have to pay for it. You have to pay for that review. And so there's a lot of talk about that and I think that there's going to be a lot of discussion on the Hill about whether or not there's going to be some members who are going to be bold enough to take on the food industry and propose that.
GJELTENKimberly Kindy is a reporter for The Washington Post. My other guests for this discussion of food additives and the FDA's role in overseeing them, Michael Taylor from the FDA, Erik Olson from the Natural Resources Defense Council, Emilia Lonardo from the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Thank you all for coming in. I'm Tom Gjelten. Thanks for listening.
Most Recent Shows
Diane talks with Washington Post enterprise reporter John Woodrow Cox about his new book "Children Under Fire: An American Crisis."
Washington Post health reporter Dan Diamond on the CDC's new Covid travel guidelines, debate over vaccine passports and the balance between hope and caution in this phase of the pandemic.
Diane talks with Paul Butler, law professor at Georgetown University Law Center and author of “Chokehold: Policing Black Men," about the first week in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer accused of killing of George Floyd.