Could proposed FDA rules lead to a food fight?

On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration revealed proposals to reform the country’s food safety regulations, floating rule changes that would affect food manufacturers and fruit and vegetable producers.

The initiatives would cost $1.4 billion to implement, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and would take years to be finalized. This could give Congress time to undermine the initiative — an imaginable scenario, considering that most Republicans and conservative Democrats tend to view regulation and any sort of non-military spending as Satanic.

But corporate food manufacturers and agribusiness might not encourage Congress to oppose the proposed rule changes, perhaps knowing that food borne illnesses spread by cost-cutting firms and farms could end up being rather expensive to an industry in which consumer confidence is of paramount importance.

According to The Washington Post:

Food industry groups welcomed the proposals, saying they provided some clarity but stopped short of endorsing them outright. They said many growers and processors already adhere to high standards. Groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Produce Marketing Association said they would continue to work with the FDA to shape the rules in the months ahead.

But political drama enthusiasts need not despair: there is another campaign that could lead to a more divisive regulatory issue at the FDA.

A petition on Change.org with over 200,000 signatures has called on soda manufacturers to stop using brominated vegetable oil (BVO), “an emulsifier used to spread the fruit and coloring elements evenly,” according to Richard Schiffman, writing for The Guardian.

“The vegetable oil part might make it seem harmless, but the bromination turns the oil into a potentially toxic chemical that is banned in foods in the European Union and Japan,” he pointed out.

Schiffman also noted that:

…in high doses BVO is neurotoxic and can lead [sic] reproductive and behavioral problems, at least in rats. Since no long-term human trials have been conducted, we don’t know the effects of ingesting BVO in soda, especially in high amounts.

This insight doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in BVO, either:

“BVO accumulates in the heart, liver and fat tissue,” according to Dr John Spangler, a professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical. “New studies are warranted to update the old studies, especially given that the patterns of soft drink consumption have changed so dramatically over the past three decades.”

The soda industry contends that the oil isn’t harmful in small doses. And the FDA agrees.

But activists might be able to force the agency to reconsider the issue. Schiffman wrote that the FDA – which currently allows 15 parts per million of BVO – “appears to have had some doubts of its own when it issued an ‘interim’ ruling in 1977 to allow the substance, pending further studies to establish its safety. Those in-depth studies were never conducted.”

The agency told The New York Times in December that it lacked the resources, considering it did not consider the matter to be a priority.

If the agency’s priorities do change, it will be interesting to see how now oft-maligned soft drink manufacturers react — and whether or not their friends on Capitol Hill can carry their sugary BVO tainted carbonated water for them.

Samuel Knight

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.