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A new plan by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) aimed at keeping the industry ahead of government intervention with enhanced transparency of the food ingredient review process is already facing an uphill battle.
The voluntary five-part initiative aims to modernize the process for making GRAS (generally recognized as safe) determinations for food ingredients by defining standards, boosting visibility to the FDA, expanding GRAS education, clarifying scientific procedures and supporting independent analysis.
“Our industry is committed to providing consumers with safe, quality, affordable and innovative products,” said Dr. Leon Bruner, GMA’s chief science officer. “We are confident that this initiative along with the industry’s efforts to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act will strengthen the food safety programs used by the entire food industry and thereby provide consumers more assurance that food products produced by US manufacturers are and will remain the safest available in the world.”
Others, however, seem less confident in the plan, based on early press coverage of the initiative, which almost universally used the word “chemicals” in headlines and copy – a word absent from GMA’s release on the launch.
“From my perspective as a supermarket dietitian, the use of the word ‘chemical’ puts up a red flag with a lot of people,” said Leah McGrath, corporate dietitian at Asheville, N.C.-based Ingles Markets and a leading voice among retail dietitians.
That puts the effort at an immediate disadvantage with a story in the hands of a mass media that’s “really pushing the negative,” McGrath remarked. GMA has already come under fire among food industry critics for its position against GMO labeling, she noted, as well as for representing large corporations that are generally mistrusted by activists vocally railing against “big food.”
“It seems like a reactionary position to be in, based on some of the things over the past couple of years,” McGrath continued, referring to the recent uproars over “pink slime” and the use of azodicarbonamide in commercial bread baking, criticized as a chemical used “in yoga mats.”
McGrath further wondered how the industry would be able to effectively deliver its message to the public. “How are you going to take scientific studies and communicate that to the consumer?” she said. “It’s a lot of scientific jargon … I’m not sure how it’s going to work.”
GMA said it planned to launch a communications outreach program to inform stakeholders and consumers of the steps being taken by industry to increase the integrity of procedures used to assess ingredient safety.
McGrath said she didn’t know what the impact of the initiative might be on retailers, beyond those that manufacture their own private label products.
The Food Marketing Institute (FMI), a trade group representing grocery retailers, said it did not have a “substantive” comment to share when contacted Thursday about the GMA announcement.
According to GMA, its five-part initiative to help modernize the process for making GRAS determinations of food ingredients will include the following actions:
- GMA will take the lead in defining a standard that will provide clear guidance on how to conduct transparent state-of-the-art ingredient safety assessments. These advanced procedures will be documented in a publicly available standard (PAS) that will be a science-based framework that specifies a rigorous and transparent ingredient safety assessment process. The procedures included in the PAS will also ensure GRAS assessments meet the regulatory requirements of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The PAS will be developed by an independent body of technical experts in an open public process that includes interested stakeholders. The PAS will be suitable for accreditation using an independent official accreditation body.
- GMA is establishing a program to ensure the FDA has increased visibility to the ingredients that are assessed as GRAS by members of the food industry. The increased visibility will be made possible through the establishment of a GMA-sponsored database that will list information on all GRAS assessments conducted by the food industry. Information in this database, expected to be up and running in 2015, will be made available to FDA and other stakeholders to provide increased visibility of ingredients used in the food supply that have been assessed for safety using the procedures defined in the PAS on GRAS assessment procedures.
- GMA will expand its curriculum of GRAS education and training programs in order to further increase the capability of scientists who assess the GRAS status of ingredients used by the consumer packaged goods industry.
- GMA’s broad-based educational programs provide GMA members and other interested stakeholders a clear understanding of the scientific procedures that need to be followed in order to complete a robust and transparent safety assessment. They also provide training on requirements defined in GRAS regulations so new ingredients are fully compliant with US food additive law and regulations.
- GMA has taken the lead in establishing the Center for Research and Ingredient Safety (CRIS) at Michigan State University launched in spring 2014. CRIS will serve as an independent academic center of expertise on the safety of ingredients used in foods and consumer products. Their expertise on ingredient safety and independent analysis will be available to all interested stakeholders.
- GMA members have committed to drive improvement in the GRAS assessment process by adopting a Code of Practice at the GMA Board of Directors Meeting held Aug. 22. The Code outlines the commitments GMA members have made to conduct assessments according to the procedures defined in the PAS, to maintain the database with up to date information and to ensure that their employees are fully trained on GRAS procedures.
With an industry and a trade group already taking it on the chin in the press from folks suspicious of big business and multisyllabic ingredients, the GMA plan appears to have a tough road to public acceptance.
“I guess it’s a good first step,” McGrath said, or “will it just give the ‘food babes’ more fodder?”