California Food Safety Act “sets a dangerous precedent,” food policy experts say

By Deniz Ataman

- Last updated on GMT

Image source: Getty/Bill Oxford
Image source: Getty/Bill Oxford

Related tags Food policy Food safety Fda Food additives Unmetered Unmetered

California’s Food Safety Act (AB 418) bans the inclusion of four food additives—propyl paraben, brominated vegetable oil, Red Dye No. 3 and potassium bromate—in food and beverages, a landmark state-wide law highlighting the potentially widening gap between state and federal food safety laws. FoodNavigator-USA spoke with Bryan Hitchcock, chief science and technology officer, IFT, and Frank Yiannas, former deputy commissioner, FDA, about the implications of AB 418 on food safety policy.

California’s ban of products containing the additives “sets a potentially dangerous precedent, reinforcing the need for integrating modern science and technology into the global food supply and its governance,” Hitchcock wrote to FoodNavigator-USA.

“As time and resources are limited, complying with conflicting legislative and regulatory requirements diverts resources away from other critical food safety, nutrition and sustainability priorities,” he added.

On a national level, Frank Yiannas, told FoodNavigator-USA that while Governor Newsom’s decision to protect California’s citizens is laudable, the state’s bypassing of federal processes “does not serve the nation.”

Businesses can expect to face a “a multitude of one-time and ongoing expenses”

Hitchcock elaborated further on the the imminent impact businesses will face when determining compliance requirements: “With a January 1, 2027, compliance date, food companies are faced with the challenge of determining the impact to their products, supply chains, and businesses… While reformulating for compliance against the new California requirements, some companies may seize the opportunity to also make other product and ingredient changes.”

He continued, adding that companies can expect to face “a multitude of one-time and ongoing expenses” when complying with new legislation or regulation requirements, including “researching alternative ingredients, developing and testing alternative products, navigating higher ingredient costs, designing new labels, setting up new supply chains and more.”

Despite these considerations, he said compliance “is achievable” and “will require focused collaboration across multiple technical and business roles to realize.”

Given the deadline, Hitchcock encourages companies to “get started immediately with assessing the new requirements’ impact” on individual products to assess the time and cost of identifying and implementing alternative ingredients and reformulations.

As a result, some companies may continue to distribute compliant products to California, or leave the market “depending on their individual business plans and priorities,” he added.

“By initiating work sooner, companies may be able to reduce compliance costs by incorporating these changes into other planned activities over the next three years," Hitchcock emphasized. 

State-by-state food policy legislation is “bad for the nation”

Yiannas, who served on the White House Supply Chain Task Force for Trump and Biden’s administrations, emphasized that while states also herald a responsibility towards the safety of its citizens, a state-by-state legislation will hinder both food production and availability, threatening both food safety and national security. He stresses a “universal standard of safe and available food.”

“We could have a very… messy patchwork of state standards that are very hard to navigate and ultimately inhibit this nation and produce an abundant supply… of available food; and states trying to navigate this patchwork of regulatory standards is a scary thought and it’d be daunting,” he said.

American food safety policy should ultimately be implemented by a federal agency, Yiannas affirmed.

“The issue is how are those decisions best made? Are they best made by a state legislature that might have had the expertise… or is the nation better off having those decisions made by a federal agency… I can tell you without question, with complete authority, that this is bad for the nation.”

California’s law is a “wake-up call” for FDA

Yet, with a reputation of implementing decades-long inspection policies and processes that often impede innovation within the food landscape, paired with the muddled distinction between where FDA and USDA operate within that landscape, Yiannas adds that California’s law is a “wake-up call” for FDA to modernize itself into a more nimble and focused organization.

“First of all, I think we have to have hope that this is a wake up call for the FDA and for federal regulators and politicians, we all need to be more concerned about national food policy… when a population doesn’t have access to safe and available food, that’s the beginning of significant, meaningful trouble.”

“Organizational structure is not enough”

Yiannas credits FDA’s more recent attempt at food safety standardization through its Unified Human Foods Program in the aftermath of the infant formula crisis. The program will oversee food safety, chemical safety, nutrition, among other areas.

However, “organizational structure is not enough alone,” Yiannas stressed. He added that FDA can heed the private sectors’ foray into advanced tools and methodologies to accelerate and implement safety protocols that reflect current consumer concerns around ingredient safety and production standards.

“I think this is a generational opportunity for the agency to take a hard look internally to say, ‘How do we transform… some of our processes to be more rapid, to be more agile and science-based, and keep up with the changing times that we live in?” he stated.

“These modern times are going to require more modern approaches and we can’t use the same procedures that we used 20 years ago. For example, there are new tools and methodologies… like machine learning that can crunch a lot of data… It’s not just a hope, it has to happen if the FDA and federal agencies don’t figure out how to speed up some of their work and to try to keep just a few steps behind, not miles, behind the private sector,” he emphasized.

“I think we’re entering a new era where consumers are going to be increasingly concerned about chemical contaminants in food…but now we have methodologies that can detect chemicals down to the parts per billion and parts per trillion. Without good scientific review or characterization, people can use that to create scare, alarm and fear,” he added.

The disunity between FDA and USDA contributes to disproportionate “risk oversight” of food products

As mentioned earlier, how FDA and USDA distinguish itself from the other, especially for the average consumer, is highly nuanced.

FDA oversees 80% of food whereas the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services is responsible for the remaining 20%. This distinction can be exemplified with facilities producing pizza, Yiannas explained. A facility adding meat to a pizza is considered a high-risk contamination facility, which is inspected every 24 hours by USDA. Whereas, facilities without meat are subject to FDA inspection once every five years—underscoring the gaps in “proportional risk oversight of food products and… why things have to change.”

“There’s no proportional risk oversight of these food products and that’s why things have to change. So that’s why I’m an advocate of a single food safety agency… so that we can do better risk prioritization, eliminate duplication of effort, gain efficiencies and do a better risk prioritization so that American tax payer dollars are being used in a way that protects consumers,” he said.

State and federal partnerships “need to further strengthened” for a unified federal food agency

It remains unclear whether FDA will consolidate itself to another agency or separate itself entirely into its own entity that incorporates the resources of USDA and FDA; however, Yiannas emphasizes his support of a single food safety agency that works closely with states’ departments of health and agriculture which already “play a critical role in the nation’s food safety net” and “states should play a pivotal role.

“I think the single food safety strategy with a single federal food agency has to work very closely with our states. I think the partnerships need to be further strengthened,” he added.

“For example, if you’re working on a food safety issue that involves produce… there’s a couple of states that grow the lion’s share, but you need to involve the state officials to get their input before any policy is implemented… Make sure you’ve heard from them just like you must engage other stakeholder groups in public meetings,” he suggested.

Ultimately, Yiannas emphasized that when it comes to food safety, “we have to hold our government officials in our federal agencies… to a very high standard,” and that changing the agency is “more than just dollars, it’s reinventing and transforming some of the work processes,” that adapt to the pace of business and the public’s health.

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