California Food Safety Act Bans Use of Four Chemical Food Additives Likely to Impact the Nation

Interview with Susan Little, senior advocate, California government affairs with the Environmental Working Group, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

On Oct. 7, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill (AB 418), known as the California Food Safety Act. The law bans the use of four chemical food additives: red dye #3, potassium bromate, brominated vegetable oil and propyl paraben, which have been linked in tests to cancer, reproductive health issues and neurobehavioral problems, such as hyperactivity.

The European Union, as well as the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China and Japan have all previously banned the use of these four additives in food.  After the effective date of 2027, the manufacture, sale or distribution of food products containing these additives will be subject to hefty fines in California.

Between The Lines Melinda Tuhus spoke with Susan Little, senior advocate for California government affairs with the Environmental Working Group, which was the driving force behind passage of the bill. Here she talks about food industry opposition to the legislation and the impact the new law will have on California and the rest of the nation.

SUSAN LITTLE: AB 418 was initiated due to concerns by a broad host of public interest groups and the public at large about the fact that additives put into food in the U.S., most of them have not been reviewed by the FDA.

And since the year 2000, 99 percent of food additives have not been reviewed or cleared for safety by the FDA. Instead, they are reviewed and self-certified as being safe by local companies and food manufacturers through a process set up by the FDA that allows for self-certification.

MELINDA TUHUS: That’s scary!

SUSAN LITTLE: It’s very scary, and the general public has not been aware of that except for a contingent of nonprofit groups that have been working to try to get the FDA to be more engaged and more pro-active. But unfortunately our work to do that over the last decade, unfortunately, has not been successful.

MELINDA TUHUS: How did you come up with these four chemicals?

SUSAN LITTLE: The way we came up with these chemicals that are listed in the bill is we looked at what other countries have been doing to ensure food safety, to ensure that harmful chemicals are not in their food supply. We looked at what the European Union (EU) has done, and they have since 2008, the EU has gone and looked at chemicals that had been allowed in food and re-reviewed those chemicals for safety and in some cases prohibited the use of those cases. In the case of the AB 418 listed chemicals, the EU has since 2008 prohibited the use of those chemicals in food, based on new science. The EU’s standard is such that if they cannot establish a safe level for that chemical, then they do not allow it.

Another filter we used to come up with the chemicals in AB 418 are  that those chemicals were largely used in food consumed by children: candy, frosting, baked goods, soda – that was another rationale behind our targeting those chemicals to try to get them out of California’s food system.

Even though the food industry is already manufacturing and marketing foods for sale in the EU that do not contain the AB 418 chemicals, the food companies felt like they needed time to change their supply chain in the U.S. for food marketed and sold in the U.S. so we gave them those extra years so they could have enough time to comply with the ban here in U.S. and the state of California.

MELINDA TUHUS: Susan Little, what were you up against in trying to get this bill passed?

SUSAN LITTLE: The food industry has largely enjoyed operating mostly free of regulation. They’re able to self-regulate by self-certifying that these chemicals are safe. They were very resistant to this bill.

They did not want California telling them what to do or how to manufacture their food. They were very much opposed to the bill and all the major food industries were opposed to the bill, including from the dairy industry, to the soda industry as well as the candy manufacturers, the bakers, the retailers, just the general manufacturing industry as a whole were all up in arms over this bill.

MELINDA TUHUS:  Since you mentioned that California is the fifth largest economy in the world – a lot of things start in California and move East – do you think that maybe this effort to ban these chemicals or maybe other chemicals in the food supply will be taken up by other states or maybe the FDA nationally?

SUSAN LITTLE: Well, we don’t have high hopes for the FDA to do anything pro-active at this time. We’ve heard from some other states that might be interested in doing this. But given that the European Union as a whole has already banned these ingredients from food and then California and its large economy is moving forward to ban them, we don’t expect the food manufacturers to create different formulas for, say, Nevada, and California – that we expect them to move forward and conform the food ingredients used in other states to the same ingredients now to be required in California.

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