PHO and GRAS: FDA’s Tool to “Run the Table” on the Food Industry?

The food and beverage industry is one of the most regulated industries on the planet – and for good reason. The health and safety of the public is at stake. Food companies know it, regulators know it and consumers know it.

Traditionally, industry and its chief regulators at FDA and USDA work together, in the public interest, to ensure the United States continues to have the safest food supply in the world. That has changed in recent years.

The activist Obama Administration, in collaboration with its allies in the NGO community and sympathetic journalists, is waging a regulatory war on the food industry, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the early part of the 20th Century.

A prime example is FDA’s current effort to ban Partially Hydrogenated Oils (PHOs) from the food supply. The agency has no evidence to suggest that PHOs at the very low levels they exist in our food supply jeopardize public health. Their suppositions are based on outdated consumption and health data from years ago.

Even more striking than FDA’s action on PHOs is the way they are going about it – by revoking the ingredient’s Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status. Opponents of the food industry – giddy over their victories against the tobacco industry – have been frustrated for years that they have not been able to achieve the same level of success in the courts, Congress and FDA that they did against the tobacco industry.

So the latest strategy is to “run the table” on food companies by systematically using the GRAS program for political gain. PHOs are just the first ingredient under the microscope. FDA has indicated it will examine the GRAS status of sodium and caffeine as well. Is Sugar next? What about colors, dyes and preservatives?

In addition, the FDA has stood on the sidelines while NGO groups like the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Natural Resources Defense Council have waged an angry and public campaign against the GRAS process.

Let’s be clear – the GRAS process is not perfect, nothing is. However, companies use it well and responsibly to protect the public. At any given time, there are over 10,000 ingredients in the food supply. In the 50+ years since the GRAS process was put into place, hundreds of thousands of ingredients have been examined – and discarded or entered into the food supply.

The GRAS process has been used responsibly since 1958, and how many examples can opponents point to where the system failed? The PHO issue will be determined in due time. Industry has science and a successful track record on its side. But look beyond this battle to the war on food ingredients.

An “Iron Triangle” comprised of the activist Obama Administration, its allies in the NGO community and sympathetic friends in journalism – are looking for a tool to run the table on food ingredients using the GRAS process.

Sean McBride, Founder and Principal of DSM Strategic Communications & Consulting, is former Executive Vice President of Communications & Membership Services at the Grocery Manufacturers Association and former Director of Communications at the American Beverage Association