California Assembly member Jesse Gabriel, a Democrat representing District 46, has introduced a bill to the state legislature that would ban the sale of processed foods in California containing red dye 3, titanium dioxide, potassium bromate, brominated vegetable oil, or propyl paraben. These substances have been linked to negative human health consequences such as increased risk of cancer, behavioral issues in children, harm to the reproductive system, and damage to the immune system.

The substances targeted in Assembly Bill (AB) 418 are currently banned in the EU due to scientific studies demonstrating their associated public health risks, yet are permitted for use in foods in the U.S.

If passed, AB 418 would prohibit the manufacture, sale, or distribution of any food product in California containing red dye 3, titanium dioxide, potassium bromate, brominated vegetable oil, or propyl paraben. These additives are present in many popular food products, such as jelly beans, Skittles, PEZ candies, Trident sugar-free gum, Campbell’s soup, and other goods.

Gabriel introduced the bill to “correct a concerning lack of federal oversight,” explaining that many chemical food additives have never been independently evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), or were last reviewed decades ago. Instead, the substances have entered the nation’s food supply through Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) determinations, which Gabriel’s office describes as a “loophole in federal law” that was originally intended to apply to common household ingredients like vinegar. As a result of GRAS, chemical companies have inserted potentially harmful chemicals into the food supply “with almost no meaningful federal oversight.”

However, according to a statement from an FDA spokesperson that contrasts the statement from Gabriel's office, the substances targeted in the bill have undergone review by FDA, as required by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act. Specifically:

  • Red dye 3 is regulated as a color additive in foods under the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title 21, Part 74, Subpart A, Section 74.303.
  • Titanium dioxide is regulated as a color additive in foods under CFR Title 21, Part 73, Subpart A, Section 73.575, and according to the FDA spokesperson, the agency "is aware of recent actions taken by the EU regarding use of titanium dioxide as a color additive" and notes that "other international regulatory bodies including the UK Food Standards Agency, Health Canada, and Food Standards Australia New Zealand have not agreed with the EU assessment."
  • Potassium bromate has been used as a bread dough conditioner since 1916, as permitted by FDA’s standards of identity for flour, and the chemical converts into "harmless potassium bromide" when used correctly. FDA states that it has worked with the American Baker's Association (ABA) to "help industry improve baking technology and testing so that the ingredient is used in a way that results in no or minimal detectable residual bromate," that "ABA has indicated that normal control measures can ensure that bromate residues are well below 20 parts per million (ppm)," and that "recent label surveys indicate that the ingredient is no longer widely used by the baking industry"
  • Bromated vegetable oil is regulated as a food additive under CFR Title 21, Part 180, Subpart B, Section 180.30, and, according to FDA, the regulation reflects early toxicological data which, in the 1970's, prompted the agency to "limit consumer exposure by removing bromated vegetable oil from the list of codified GRAS substances and allowing for only one use in food—as a stabilizer for flavoring oils in fruit-flavored beverages at levels not to exceed 15 ppm in the finished beverage."
  • Propyl paraben is regulated as a food additive under CFR Title 21, Part 172, Subpart F, Section 172.515 and is affirmed as GRAS for use as an antimicrobial agent.

The bill is co-sponsored by democratic Assembly member Buffy Wicks, representing California’s 14th district.

AB 418 would make California the first state in the nation to ban the use of these dangerous chemicals in processed foods, if enacted. The measure is expected to be heard in the committees on Health and Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials in the coming weeks.

Update, April, 12, 2023: The bill has passed the California Assembly Health Committee, and will move forward to the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee.

Update, April 14, 2023: Additions have been made to the article to reflect a statement from an FDA spokesperson.

Update, April 20, 2023: The bill has passed the California Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials, and will move forward to the Appropriations Committee for consideration.

Update, May 17, 2023: The bill has passed the California Assembly and will move to the state Senate.

Update, September 13, 2023: The bill, now called the California Food Safety Act, has passed the state senate and awaits signature into law by Governor Gavin Newsom. Before passing the Senate, the bill was amended to remove titanium dioxide from the list of banned substances.