Citizen Petition Asks FDA to Enforce the FDC Act Requirement Regarding the Cumulative Effect of Food Substances as Part of Safety Assessment

October 6, 2020By Riëtte van Laack

On Sept. 23, 2020, a coalition of public health and consumer advocacy groups submitted a Citizen Petition to FDA, requesting that FDA start considering the cumulative health effects of substances added to food as (according to Petitioners) is required by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDC Act) and FDA’s own regulations. Several of the coalition members  have previously challenged FDA’s approach to safety of food ingredients (the Environmental Defense Fund has challenged FDA’s GRAS regulations, and the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement in 2018 suggesting that FDA should consider cumulative and synergistic effects of food additives in the context of other chemical exposures that may affect the same biological receptor or mechanism).

Petitioners allege that FDA and the US food industry have failed their statutorily mandated responsibility to consider the cumulative effect of food ingredients.  Allegedly, this failure has resulted in Americans, in particular children, being exposed to health risks.  In fact, Petitioners suggest that it may have contributed to dramatic increases in a variety of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and kidney disease.

Petitioners claim that under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDC Act), FDA must review the cumulative effect of substances added to foods “taking into account any chemically- or pharmacologically-related substances in the diet;” although FDA has incorporated that requirement into the regulatory definition of “safety” for the various categories of food ingredients, i.e., food additives, color additives, GRAS substances, and food contact substances, as well as for animal drugs, it allegedly has not enforced that requirement.

Petitioners claim that they reviewed all GRAS notices for human food ingredients since 1997 and identified only one notification, in which the notifying company considered the purported cumulative effect requirement.  Moreover, they note, FDA guidance for industry does not address how food manufacturers are to evaluate cumulative effects.  Instead, the cumulative effect seems to be equated to or confused with “cumulative exposure” or “cumulative intake” of the single substance rather than with cumulative effects of related substances in the diet.

Petitioners suggest that FDA use a regulation related to drugs, 21 C.F.R. § 201.57, which defined pharmacological class for drugs and biologics as model.  Petitioners also request that FDA define diet as not being limited to food and beverages but specifically include dietary supplements and tap water.

Petitioners summarize their requests as follows:

  • Update of FDA’s rules by defining key terms so they remove any ambiguity and removing outdated references;
  • Issuance of guidance to industry to explain the steps those conducting safety determinations should take to follow the law; and
  • Revision of FDA’s forms for notices and petitions to more clearly require the necessary information