Adding insult to injury

In case you’re not familiar with the term, GRAS is short for “generally recognized as safe.” It’s a designation the FDA grants to ingredients that it deems suitable for widespread, unregulated use.

But as it turns out, a product’s access to GRAS status has very little to do with its safety. And everything to do with its profitability.

A recent analysis took a closer look at notifications sent to the FDA between 1997 and 2012, vouching for the safety of common food additives seeking the GRAS label. And guess what?

All of these vouchers came from parties with a vested interest in the outcome. Every last one.

Shocking? Maybe not, given the FDA’s less-than-stellar track record. But frightening all the same.

This analysis looked at 451 submissions in total. And it found that all of the authors had some kind of relationship with the manufacturers of the food additives in question.

I guess objective decision-making on the part of U.S. regulators is a little too much to ask. But given the arbitrary nature of the GRAS approval process as it currently stands, anyone could have predicted this.

This process began in the late 1950s as a way to allow manufacturers to “fast track” everyday foods onto the market. But advances in food additives over the years have made this little loophole more dangerous for consumers than ever.

Today, GRAS designation introduces thousands of chemicals into our food—often with no hard safety data to speak of. In fact, a company doesn’t even have to petition the FDA to give their product this label.

They just need to be “reasonably certain” that their product won’t cause harm. And be able to provide the “published” scientific support of their choosing. (No peer-review required.)

Basically, if a company decides that their additive is GRAS, well… it is! And they don’t even have to tell the FDA in order to market it as such. That step of the process is voluntary.

Not that the FDA’s “approval” counts for much here. Manufacturers submit their notices, and the FDA responds with a letter granting their GRAS status. Or denying it on grounds of insufficient evidence.

Given the discoveries of this recent analysis, you can guess how often the latter happens.

Which isn’t to say that products always get the green light. In fact, I can think of at least one glaring exception: Ironically enough, stevia—at least in its whole leaf form—was never granted GRAS status. And it still hasn’t to this day.

Hmm, I wonder if the makers of big-name sugar substitutes had anything to do with that?

At the end of the day, the whole system is a travesty. Previous research estimates that less than half of the tens of thousands of additives currently in our food are on the FDA’s official GRAS list. And roughly 1,000 ingredients made their debut without any agency notification whatsoever. 

That’s just amazing to me. And we expect these people to protect us?

This is why I tell you time and again that the FDA is not the safety watchdog that it pretends to be. It’s just another government agency in the back pockets of Big Pharma and Big Agribusiness.

But actual federal watchdog agencies have exposed the true extent of the corruption at work here.

One 2012 report revealed multiple instances of the FDA banning previously GRAS additives. It also found that 35 percent of GRAS safety assessments came from employees or paid consultants of the ingredients’ manufacturers. And that 64 percent of these “expert panels” were carefully hand-picked.

Obviously, this country’s food safety system is in desperate need of an overhaul. And the introduction of a policy that strictly prohibits conflicts of interest in GRAS approvals is the first thing that needs to happen.

Because right now, the safety of our food lies almost entirely in the hands of the companies selling it to us. And we all just have to trust that they’re being honest when they say that their products meet the standards they advertise. (That is, assuming they advertise any standards at all.)

This kind of “buyer beware” system that relies on consumer discretion might fly with cars and computers. But when it comes to our nation’s food supply? I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t make any sense to me.

In fact, it’s flat out appalling.


“Conflicts of Interest in the Regulation of Food Safety: A Threat to Scientific Integrity.” JAMA Intern Med. 2013 Aug 7.

Seaman, Andrew. “Industry influence found in food additive reports.” Reuters Health. 07 Aug 2013.