Hazardous Substances in the Kitchen: Food Safety and Food Additives

Dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate on the side?

| May/June 1984

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    Includes a review of preservatives, antioxidants, emulsifiers, stabilizers, flavorings, colorings and kitchenware. 

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Food Additives

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) looks after the safety of our food and pharmaceuticals. Its legal basis is the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938—backed up by subsequent additions, including the Pesticide Chemicals Act of 1954, the Food Additives Amendment of 1958, and the Color Additives Amendment of 1960. For good reason, food is the most regulated of all consumer products, but the extent of protection may not be as great as you think.

Before an additive may be used in food, it must be demonstrated to be safe. The testing, however, is conducted by the industry that proposes to sell it, not by the FDA. Furthermore, there's a loophole in the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act's mandate for safety: Dangerous substances are prohibited from being added to food . . . except where they are "unavoidable" or "necessary in production" and are used in small enough doses that no apparent hazard is presented to test animals. As you can see, the mandate for safety is hazy.

With the later amendments to the 1938 legislation, an important section called the Delaney Clause was added. This regulation prohibits the use of any food additive that has been found to induce cancer in animals or humans. The Delaney Clause was fought by the FDA, the American Medical Association (AMA), and the food industry. Their argument, of course, was that the stipulation of "no risk" is excessively restrictive: In their view, the benefits of some additives outweigh the hazards. Twenty-five years after its inception, the Delaney Clause is still under attack. Separate amendments proposed to Congress in October of 1983—by Orrin Hatch of Utah in the Senate and Edgar Madigan of Illinois in the House—have, with the help of heavy lobbying from the plastics, meat, and soft drink industries, attempted to strike down or replace the Delaney Clause. (If you plan to write to your representative to express your opinion about such changes to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the pieces of legislation referred to are Senate bill S. 1938 and House bill H.R. 4121.)

Under the Food Additives Amendment of 1958, additives that were used previous to that time and that showed no evidence of harm were permanently listed as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). Only substances added to the list after the year of the amendment's enactment were to be tested. During his administration, President Nixon ordered the FDA to conduct research on all food additives. This work has been going on since 1970 and is not yet completed, but periodic updates are made to the GRAS list. Items are classified as [I] demonstrated to be safe, [II] safe at present consumption levels, [III] the question of safety requires further study, [IV] evidence of hazard, and [V] not enough data. Nearly all of the additives that are listed in this article fall into categories III, IV, or V.

Food products have the most adequate labeling requirements of all the consumer goods that we're examining in this mini-manual (see Hazardous Household Chemicals). Each constituent used to formulate the product must be listed on the label in descending order of its percentage of the whole.

There are, however, a number of exemptions that "streamline" labeling. For one, "incidental" compounds used to process a food, such as flour bleaches, need not be listed . . . because they aren't present in the final product at more than trace levels. This disregards the fact that the processing chemicals may alter the nutritional value of food significantly.



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