On June 7, 2023, a bill was reintroduced to U.S. Congress that, if enacted, would create an Office of Food Safety Reassessment within the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regularly review the safety of chemicals used in food. The bill, sponsored by Representatives Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, aims to ensure chemicals that have entered the food supply chain through “loopholes,” or chemicals that were reviewed by FDA decades ago, are safe to eat.

Recent Focus on FDA Food Chemical Oversight

The present bill, named the Food Chemical Reassessment Act of 2023, is not the only recent legislation focused on the safety of chemicals in foods and FDA’s process for reviewing such chemicals. In California, Assembly Bill 418 seeks to ban five toxic chemicals from all foods sold in the state. The chemicals are banned in other markets like the EU due to their associated negative health effects, and the authors of the California bill argue that the chemicals are allowed in food due to the same “loopholes” cited by Reps. Schakowsky and DeLauro regarding their bill.

The loophole with which the authors of both the California bill and the federal bill take issue is known as the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) determination. Although GRAS was initially intended to apply to uncontroversially safe ingredients like vinegar, it has enabled potentially harmful chemicals to enter the U.S. food supply without much oversight, argue the representatives. FDA has refuted that the chemicals called into question by the California bill are allowed in food products without federal oversight.

The congressional bill also follows the recent release of an outline of its own enhanced approach to regulating food chemical safety, in which a new framework for systematic post-market chemical reassessment is included. To make the envisioned enhanced approach a reality, however, FDA asserted that it needs additional resources and authorities. Alongside the release of the enhanced approach, the agency also acknowledged GRAS and explained the two ways FDA reviews chemicals used as food-safe after entering the market.

Rep. Schakowsky stated that the need for the Food Chemical Reassessment Act of 2023 became apparent following the 2022 infant formula crisis, which revealed issues with FDA’s oversight of human foods. “It is time to put the ‘F’ back in FDA, and this bill is an important step in ensuring the foods we eat are safe and free from harmful chemicals," she said.

An Office of Food Safety Reassessment

Specifically, the bill would create an Office of Food Safety Reassessment within FDA, which would be required every three years to study the safety of at least ten chemicals added to U.S. food or food packaging. The bill also suggests the first ten chemicals for reassessment: Tert-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), titanium dioxide, potassium bromate, perchlorate, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), brominated vegetable oil (BVO), propyl paraben, sodium nitrite, and sulfuric acid.

Finally, the bill would re-establish a Food Advisory Council to advise FDA on the best methods to review the safety of food chemicals.