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California passes first US bill to ban “harmful” additives after regulators feel heat over inaction

September 15, 2023
Food & Drink

The California State Assembly and Senate have passed a bill to ban the use of four harmful chemicals in processed foods and drinks. The bill – targeting red dye No. 3, potassium bromate, brominated vegetable oil and propylparaben – aims to protect public health and aligns California with the EU and other regions that have already prohibited these additives.

The bill will become law once it is signed by the governor of California, Gavin Newsom, having passed all the legislative stages. It is the first bill of its kind and once enacted, it marks the first time a US state has banned food additives that are permitted by the FDA.

Proponents of the legislation hope other US states will follow suit by implementing similar bans, prompting a nationwide transition to safer alternatives.

The targeted chemicals have been linked to cancer, reproductive issues and behavioral and developmental problems in children. They can be found is some brands of orange soda, icing, hamburger rolls, candies and other processed foods.

“This bipartisan vote marks a huge step forward in our efforts to protect children and families in California from dangerous and toxic chemicals in our food,” says Jesse Gabriel, Assembly member of the California legislature.

Gabriel deems it “unacceptable” that the US is “so far behind” the rest of the world regarding banning these additives.

“We don’t love our children any less than they do in Europe and it’s not too much to ask food and beverage manufacturers to switch to the safer alternative ingredients that they already use in Europe and so many other nations around the globe,” he says.

The bill decrees a deadline of 2027 to remove the banned chemicals from foods and beverages, but Gabriel expects reformulation to be done before that.

Non-compliance will be punishable by a maximum civil penalty of US$5,000 for the first violation and US$10,000 for subsequent breaches.

“Broken” FDA
The bill’s proponents accuse the FDA of lagging behind other countries’ food authorities.

According to the US Environmental Working Group (EWG), over 10,000 chemicals are allowed for use in food sold in the country, of which “nearly 99% of those introduced since 2000 were approved by the food and chemical industry and not the FDA.”

They also argue that the risks of these chemicals have been demonstrated in numerous studies. As a result, major brands and manufacturers – including Coke, PepsiCo, Gatorade, Dunkin Donuts, Papa John’s Pizza and Panera Bread – have voluntarily stopped using these additives in their products.

“For decades, the FDA has failed to keep us safe from toxic food chemicals,” underscores Scott Faber, senior VP for government affairs at the EWG.

“The chemical companies keep exploiting a loophole that allows for food additives that have not been adequately reviewed for safety by the FDA. And the FDA consistently fails to reassess chemicals, even in light of new science. The food and confectioners industries know the review process at the FDA is broken.”

What are the banned additives?
Companies use the four chemicals in question to make food products more visually appealing and extend their shelf life.

Red dye No. 3, which is derived from petroleum, has been linked to behavioral problems in children. Moreover, the chemical has been banned in cosmetics in the US since 1990 after authorities found it can cause cancer in animals.

Potassium bromate is a chemical oxidant, typically used in bakery, which has been prohibited in many countries worldwide (mostly in the early 2000s) for health reasons.

Brominated vegetable oil is an additive used as a stabilizer in fruit-flavored drinks as it can help prevent ingredients from separating. The chemical has been linked to memory loss and skin problems. Coca-Cola removed the additive in the US in 2014, for example.

Propylparaben has been flagged as a potential endocrine disruptor. It is used as a preservative. Its use in hair straightening products has been found to contribute to an elevated risk of uterine cancer.

“What are these toxic chemicals doing in our food?” asks Susan Little, EWG’s senior advocate for California government affairs.

She flags that children have lower tolerance levels than adults to chemical exposure and their developing bodies make them especially vulnerable.

“We know they are harmful and that children are likely being exposed at a much higher rate than adults. It makes no sense that the same products food manufacturers sell in California are sold in the EU but without these toxic chemicals,” she adds.

TiO2 falls off the bill
The bill, in its initial form, contained plans to ban titanium dioxide (TiO2). However, to gather the maximum amount of bipartisan support, this compound was dropped along the legislative procedure, according to Gabriel.

The potential health hazards of TiO2 are not fully understood.

While it was banned in the EU in November last year, the EU Court of Justice annulled the European Commission delegated regulation of 2019, which labeled TiO2 as a carcinogenic substance by inhalation in certain powder forms.

The judges found a lapse of judgment of the EU executive body decision, deeming the Commission’s ruling a “manifest error in its assessment,” as the scientific study used as a pillar to justify the ban didn’t consider “relevant factors.”

In a statement sent to Food Ingredients First, the US FDA clarified that TiO2 meets all the safety parameters in the country.

Canadian food authorities also confirmed TiO2 as safe last year. Similarly, the UK’s Food Standards Agency declined to ban the artificial additive.

By Marc Cervera


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