Oct 09, 2023

Frank Yiannas: Newsom should think carefully about food additive ban

There aren’t many topics more important for a nation than its ability to provide its citizens access to safe, nutritious, and available food. That’s why I appreciate the California legislature’s desire to protect its citizens by banning certain food additives they believe are unsafe, via passage of Assembly Bill 418, which now awaits the Governor’s review. However, while this action is well-intended, if enacted, it does set a dangerous precedent on how food safety standards in our nation are best established.

I’ve dedicated my career to advancing food safety and protecting public health. I’ve done so at the height of federal service, in academic settings, and within the private sector. As the former Deputy Commissioner at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), I witnessed firsthand why the country needs a strong FDA – working in close collaboration with the States – to manage the scientific rigor needed to evaluate the safety of food involved in interstate commerce. It’s because of these experiences that I’m concerned that California lawmakers felt it was necessary to take this action on their own.

Without relying on a strong, science-driven federal food safety agency, our country is left with a state-by-state patchwork of different, emerging regulatory standards that would weaken our nation’s food system and food safety efforts. Our nation is better when each state can help feed the rest of the states with a uniform standard of safe, available food.

This isn’t a novel idea. It was President Lincoln who saw the need to establish the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the entire nation (not just one state) and created a Bureau of Chemistry within it, which was the predecessor to the U.S. FDA. The need for national, uniform food safety standards for foods involved in interstate commerce was true then – and it is still true today.

Some have said the food ingredient ban in California is necessary because the FDA isn’t moving fast enough. While I’m sympathetic to this argument, this doesn’t mean we should bypass their authority. In contrast, we should be working with them and congressional leaders to ensure they operate to a high standard and have the experts, processes, and technologies needed to adapt more quickly as science evolves and the food system changes.

And while many support accelerating the FDA review process, it doesn’t mean the current process isn’t working at all. In fact, three of the five original ingredients targeted by the California ban are currently under review by FDA. In the case of brominated vegetable oil (BVO), the FDA has already initiated steps to remove BVO from the U.S. food supply, thereby making the California action unnecessary.

California’s proposed ban has also gained a lot of attention over the assertion that “if it’s banned in the EU, it should be banned here.” But it’s just not that simple. There are differences in our food systems, and a host of other factors that come into play when making complex, science-based determinations.

As an example, there have been differences in the interpretation of the science between the European Commission and the United States and Canada on the use of titanium dioxide, a brightening pigment, in foods. While the Europeans have acted against its use, the U.S. FDA and Health Canada have both concluded – via separate and independent reviews – that the available studies do not demonstrate human safety concerns connected to its use as a color additive. Fortunately, the legislative sponsors of the California ban recently removed titanium dioxide from their proposal.

The U.S. food system is interdependent, and these decisions are complex. It’s time for the FDA to step up – and for the State of California, Congressional leaders, and consumers alike to demand that they do their job more quickly.

I appreciate the difficult position Gov. Newsom has been placed in and we should all wish him wisdom when making this decision. In doing so, he’ll have to consider what’s good for his constituents, as well as the nation. It’s critical to rely on experts at the federal level, in close collaboration with state officials, to maintain consistency, uniformity, and consumer confidence in our nation’s food safety system.

Frank Yiannas is a former Deputy Commissioner of Food Policy & Response at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.