The nation’s largest food industry trade group said Wednesday it will roll out a series of initiatives to address growing concerns among consumers and the Food and Drug Administration about the safety of chemicals that are often secretly added to food with no vetting by the federal government.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association said it will create a database of food additives — including chemical preservatives, flavorings and thickening agents —along with the scientific findings companies have made to determine the substances are Generally Recognized as Safe, or GRAS.


Thousands of consumers say a protein-rich fungus in Quorn products has caused them to experience allergic reactions and severe bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. The manufacturer says allergic reactions are rare and that their vegetarian product line is safe and healthy. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

The database will not be available to the public, but the FDA will be granted access.

GMA said it will also take the lead in setting an industry standard for how safety assessments should be conducted before a company can declare an ingredient is GRAS. The group may work with the American National Standards Institute, which has approved standards for everything from light bulbs to fire extinguishers. The process could take years.

Until those standards are set, the GMA is encouraging its members to submit their GRAS determinations to the FDA for review.

The Post reported earlier this month that the explosive growth of new food additives – coupled with easing of federal oversight – has allowed food companies to avoid FDA’s scrutiny.

The law does not require notification to the FDA. Companies are allowed to conduct their own scientific reviews, determine an additive is Generally Recognized As Safe, and put it into their products without ever notifying the FDA.

In a prepared statement, Leon Bruner, chief science officer for the GMA, said the initiative will “improve the process” for determining an ingredient is Generally Recognized as Safe and “increase transparency” behind the scientific safety findings.

When Congress gave FDA oversight responsibility for food additives in 1958, it acknowledged that safety of many ingredients is well established and created a GRAS category to account for them. Vinegar or salt are classic examples of additives that are considered to be GRAS.

But food companies now routinely say new ingredients without a rich history of safety data are GRAS. The practice has prompted food safety advocacy groups to express concerns, particularly since the number of food additives has increased from 800 to more than 9,000 over the past four decades, driven largely by the America’s appetite for tasty, processed foods.

FDA officials have also recently said they are concerned. Michael Taylor, who heads up the FDA’s food safety division, told The Washington Post last month that the agency doesn’t know about the safety profile of many chemicals that are finding their way into the food supply.

In response to GMA’s announcement, FDA officials said in a prepared statement the agency is “supportive of any initiative that promotes scientific rigor and transparency to independent GRAS determinations” and looks forward to continued talks with the industry to “ensure the safety of ingredients added to food.”

The agency also called on the industry to stop making GRAS determinations in secret and to start notifying the agency of their safety findings prior to putting new ingredients in foods or using old ingredients in new ways.

Tom Neltner, a chemical engineer who has co-authored six academic articles about the FDA additives process and is a leading critic of the GRAS system, said the industry initiative is a “big step forward.”

But Neltner said it doesn’t go far enough because the new standards for reaching a GRAS determinations would not apply to thousands of chemicals that are already in the food supply.

“This proposal will grandfather in 50 years of GRAS ingredients,” Neltner said.

The GMA’s initiative also includes an education program about the GRAS process for both the industry and for consumers.