Food chemicals: management strategies in the USA

In the United States of America (USA), the regulation of food chemicals involves a complex interplay of state legislation and federal oversight by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Concerns about the safety of various food chemicals have prompted individual states to take action. A news report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) on April 4th, 2024 highlights the presence of various chemicals in American food, some posing significant health risks including cancer, disruption of the reproductive system, hormonal imbalance, nervous system harm, genotoxicity, neurotoxicity, and risks to children's brain development with potential behavioral difficulties.  

Last year, California passed a law banning four toxic chemicals- potassium bromate, propyl paraben, Red Dye No. 3 (Erythrosine), and brominated vegetable oil (BVO)- from food sold, manufactured, or distributed within the state. This action has spurred other states such as Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Washington, and West Virginia to propose bills targeting harmful food chemicals. These bills aim to address a range of chemicals beyond the initial four, including titanium dioxide, artificial dyes, Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), and azodicarbonamide.  

According to EWG, states initiatives reflect concerns over the lack of federal oversight in ensuring the safety of food additives. EWG reports that nearly 99 percent of food chemicals introduced since 2000 were approved by the food and chemical industry rather than the FDA. Compounding this issue, the FDA's own assessment process is often slow and lacks transparency, with limited reevaluations of past approvals despite the availability of new scientific evidence.  

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) answered to the concerns of the public on food chemicals safety by emphasizing that the mere presence of chemicals in food doesn't determine its safety. All food is composed of chemicals, including essential nutrients like potassium and sodium. It ascertained that some chemicals are added to food for nutritional benefits or to prevent spoilage or pathogens, while others may enter food through environmental contamination. The agency employs scientific methods to assess the safety of chemicals, considering factors such as the amount present, the types of foods involved, and the sensitivity of different population groups. The FDA conducts monitoring programs like the Total Diet Study to track nutrients and contaminants in food.  

While states take proactive steps to address gaps in regulation through legislative bans on toxic chemicals, the FDA asserts its commitment to rigorous scientific evaluation and monitoring. Although both the FDA and the food industry share responsibility for food safety, it ultimately falls on manufacturers to meet FDA requirements. To assist consumers, the FDA advises consumers to critically evaluate information about chemicals in food and advocates for diverse, nutrient-rich diets to minimize exposure to any harmful chemicals. Overall, the FDA aims to provide consumers with reliable information to make informed and healthy food choices for themselves and their families.