TIME public health

Turkey Bacon and Six Other Foods to Avoid This Week

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Spoiled turkey bacon and bread with glass bits are being recalled

In our food supply, safety sometimes slips through the cracks. Unfortunately, the U.S. saw quite a few recalls this week, and since not every recall reported to authorities makes headlines, we’ve rounded them up for you. If you purchased a product that’s been recalled, you can often return it from where you bought it for a refund.

Turkey bacon
Brand: Oscar Mayer
Contaminated with: Spoils earlier than indicated.
Kraft Heinz Foods Company is recalling about 2,068,467 pounds of turkey bacon products because the products may spoil before their “best when used by” date. The issue was discovered when consumers complained about spoilage problems. The company has received reports of illness. Read the full report here.

Brands: Sara Lee, Great Value, Kroger, Bimbo, Nature’s Harvest and L’Oven Fresh
Contaminated with: Possible glass fragments
Bimbo Bakeries has recalled some of its breads sold under a variety of brands due to the possible presence of glass from a broken light bulb in one of the company’s bakeries. The company was made aware of the problem after three consumers reported small pieces of glass on the outside of the bread. Read the full report here.

Duck head and neck
Brand: California Qi Li’s Braised Chicken
Contaminated with: Undeclared soy sauce
California Qi Li’s Braised Chicken is recalling about 6,644 pounds of duck head and duck neck products due to undeclared soy sauce. There have been no reports of illness from the product. Read the full report here.

MORE: Why You Shouldn’t Eat Delicious Charred Foods

Macadamia nuts
Brand: Jansal Valley
Contaminated with: Salmonella
Food distributor Sid Wainer and Son of New Bedford, MA is recalling Jansal Valley brand Raw Macadamia Nuts after the bacteria Salmonella was found in a one-pound package of the nuts. So far no illnesses have been reported. Read the full report here.

Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Granola Bars
Brand: Sam Mills
Contaminated with: Undeclared dairy
Sam Mills is recalling 11,083 cases of 4.4 ounce boxes of Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Granola Bars due to possible contamination with dairy. The product currently claims to be dairy-free even though there is a risk of cross contamination with dairy. This could be problematic for people with dairy sensitivities. Read the full report here.

Dark Chocolate covered Honey Grahams with Sea Salt
Brand: Trader Joe’s
Contaminated with: Undeclared milk
Candy retailer Jo’s Candies is recalling Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate covered Honey Grahams with Sea Salt because the product may contain milk which is not listed on the label. That’s problematic for people who have milk-related allergies. So far there have been two reactions to the product reported. Read the full report here.

Green beans
Brand: Cascadian Farm
Contaminated with: Listeria monocytogenes
General Mills is recalling packages of its Cascadian Farm Cut Green Beans. One package tested positive for the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes. No illnesses have been reported. Read the full report here.

TIME public health

The One Food to Avoid Buying This Week

Pig in the sty
Getty Images

Hint: it's a whole hog

It was a pretty good week for food recalls, but one item stood out in these final days of summer: whole hogs for barbeques.

On Thursday, federal officials announced that Kapowsin Meats, a company based in Graham, Washington, recalled 116,262 pounds of whole hogs due to possible Salmonella contamination. The bacteria can cause diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps in people who consume it. Some people who consume Salmonella-tainted products may develop a severe infection and need to be hospitalized.

MORE: 38 Things Americans Say They’ve Found In A Hot Dog

In July, the Washington State Department of Health notified authorities that it was investigating Salmonella illnesses in the state. Health officials eventually linked these infections to whole hogs for barbeque from Kapowsin Meats. More than 30 people ate the hogs before they became infected with Salmonella.

The investigation is continuing, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) says there are 134 people in Washington whose onset of illness between April 25, 2015 to July 27, 2015. Those sicknesses may be tied to the contaminated hogs, which were produced between April 18, 2015 and July 27, 2015.

MORE: Meet The Secret Group That Decides Which Flavors Are ‘Natural’

FSIS and Kapowsin Meats worry some consumers may have contaminated meat in their freezers. The meat was shipped to consumers, retail shops and distributors in Alaska and Washington.

There’s concern among health officials that the source of the outbreak could go beyond Kapowsin Meats and to farms in Washington or Montana. “Eight of 11 environmental samples from the slaughterhouse did return positives for the pathogen, which is being seen in Washington State for the first time ever,” Food Safety News reports.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Cilantro and 3 More Foods to Avoid This Week

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This week cilantro is a no-go

If only food recalls were a rarity. Unfortunately, many foods are pulled from grocery store shelves for some sort of contamination issue (sometimes after you’ve already brought them home). There were several recalls this week, but since not every recall reported by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) makes headlines, we’ve rounded them up for you. If you purchased a product that’s been recalled, you can often return it from where you bought it for a refund.

Brand: various; cilantro from Puebla, Mexico
Contaminated with: Listeria
This one isn’t a grocery store recall, per se, but it’s a revolting food safety issue to know about. Investigators at the FDA are looking into ongoing outbreaks in various U.S. states of cyclosporiasis infections, which is an intestinal illness that’s caused by a microscopic parasite. Fresh cilantro from the state of Puebla, Mexico is suspected to be the source of some of the illnesses, though the investigation is still ongoing. Read the full report, here.

Macadamia nuts
Brand: Izzie Macs!
Contaminated with: Salmonella
Mahina Mele Farm has recalled some products containing macadamia nuts after it was discovered the nuts were contaminated with salmonella. The products include salted, unsalted, wholes and pieces Macadamia nuts, and Nut “Buttah.” Read the full report, here.

Apple Hard Cider
Brand: Angry Orchard
Contaminated with: No contaminants, but the bottles are bursting.
Angry Orchard recalled select cases of their Crisp Apple Hard Cider due to alerts from consumers concerning bottles breaking or overflowing under increased pressure, possibly do to re-fermentation. Read the full report, here.

Whey, casein and colostrum protein products
Brand: Just Be Natural (JBN), Whey Isolates, Earth Superior Whey, Gifted Nutrition, Confidence Isolates, Recovery Fuel, Growtein
Contaminated with: Undeclared milk
Nutrition Resource Services, Inc. is recalling products that contain whey concentrate, whey isolate, casein, and colostrum, because they contain milk which is not included on the product labels. That’s problematic for people who have milk-related allergies. Read the full report, here.

TIME India

Maggi Noodles Are Safe to Eat, Say Indian Government-Backed Experts

Chandan Khanna—AFP/Getty Images A shopkeeper puts packs of Nestle 'Maggi' instant noodles into a plastic bag in his shop in New Delhi, India, June 17, 2015

In June, the county's food regulator said the snack was "unsafe and hazardous," triggering a massive nationwide recall

After a bruising summer that saw Nestlé India pull its popular Maggi instant noodles amid a high-profile food scare, the company received a boost on Tuesday when a government-approved laboratory found that popular snack complied with national food safety standards, the Press Trust of India (PTI) reports.

Last month, the Indian arm of the Swiss food giant reported its first quarterly loss in at least a decade and a half after the country’s food safety regulator ordered a recall of Maggi products in June. Behind the move were a series of safety checks on the noodles by local regulators that pointed to excessive levels of lead in the instant snack. “It is clear from the reports received from various states that there is overwhelming evidence of the said food products being unsafe and hazardous for human consumption,” the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) said in an eight-page order posted on its website June 5.

Nestlé India, while complying with the order to recall hundreds of millions of packets of Maggi noodles from around the vast South Asian nation, challenged the order in court. Responding to the regulator’s move, the company said that while it believed the noodles were safe, it had “decided to take the product off the shelves nationwide in view of recent developments and concerns around the product, which has led to an environment of confusion for the consumer.”

Now, the company has received a shot in the arm from the results of tests at an FSSAI-approved laboratory that showed its noodles to be in compliance with the country’s food safety norms. The tests at the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) in the southern Indian city of Mysore were conducted on samples sent by local regulators in the Indian state of Goa. “CFTRI finding shows that samples are in compliance with the food safety standards,” the director of Goa’s Food and Drug Administration, Salim A Veljee, told PTI.

The findings drove up Nestlé India’s stock by as much as 10% on Wednesday morning, as investors looked forward to a possible resolution of a controversy that has hit the company’s bottom line. Speaking to reporters last month, Nestlé India’s managing director Suresh Narayanan said the company was doing everything it could to bring the popular noodles back to the Indian market. “Nestle India is making all efforts and will continue to engage with authorities to bring Maggi noodles back on the shelves,” he said.

TIME public health

Kroger Recalls Spices Due to Possible Salmonella Contamination

Grocery stores in 31 states are affected

National supermarket chain Kroger Co. is recalling four of its house line of spices, which could be contaminated with salmonella.

The recall includes Kroger Ground Cinnamon, Kroger Garlic Powder, Kroger Coarse Ground Black Pepper and Kroger Bac’n Buds.

The FDA found traces of salmonella in spices at a store in North Augusta, S. Carolina. The recall affects not only stores in South Carolina but also locations in 31 states under other Kroger franchises, such as Fred Meyer, Food 4 Less and Foods Co., among others. A full list of store locations can be found here.

There have been no reports of illness related to the spices, according to the FDA.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

New York City Restaurants Are Cleaner Than Ever

18% fewer eateries have been cited for evidence of mice

It’s been five years since New York City instituted a strict grading policy assessing restaurants for cleanliness, food safety and handling—an attempt to address its somewhat unsavory reputation as a mecca for unsanitary eating establishments.

Now, in the latest report, city health officials have some good news: 95% of restaurants now earn A grades, and violations that can contribute to foodborne illnesses have dropped by 11%, giving New York its cleanest report card since the program began.

The requirements and methods of the health inspections are not without critics; even high-end establishments with Michelin-star honored chefs like Per Se were notoriously cited for not maintaining hot foods at high enough temperatures or cold foods at cold enough temperatures, despite commonly used practices of “resting” dishes after they come out of the oven or refrigerator to balance flavor and temperature. But the system works, say health officials. The report says that 37% more new restaurants in the city earn A grades in their first year compared to five years ago, and 18% fewer eateries have been cited for evidence of mice.

The program allows eating establishments one do-over; if they don’t meet criteria for earning an A grade, they have up to 30 days to fix their violations and receive a second inspection before getting the final grade that gets posted on their window. That posting, says Dan Kass, deputy commissioner for environmental health at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, is key to the program’s success. “You need transparency in governmental inspection programs,” he says. “It’s the best way to inform the public and encourage them to vote with their feet and the best way to motivate restaurants—especially those that lag behind others in hygiene and food safety practices—to feel motivated to comply [with health regulations.]”

When the letter grading and public posting of the grades began five years ago, says Kass, officials expected about a 5% improvement in grades every year. “We have seen much more rapid change than that,” he says, “and it truly influences the practice of food safety in restaurants.”

The department now plans to launch a food safety workshop for restaurant workers—not just owners—to help them better understand the value and importance of proper handling and storing of food. But the public and prominent posting of letter grades will remain, so diners will still have a quick and easy way of knowing where the restaurant stands with respect to food safety and sanitation. “Inspections and education alone are insufficient to drive restaurants to improve,” Kass says. “Threats of fines may help, but those too are insufficient to move some restaurants to really change practices and put the public’s health first. There is no question that public transparency and making the information available to public at the point of sale is probably the most important driver—at least for the improvements we see.”

In fact, the system is gaining in popularity; Yelp reviews now include the grades or number scores for restaurants in cities that provide them.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Here’s How To Cut Down On Food Waste

Expiration dates are confusing and lead to lots of food waste

Americans waste $640 of food each year, according to a new survey released by the American Chemistry Council. That uneaten or unused food may end up in the garbage in part because consumers are really confused by expiration dates; one British study suggests that misinterpreting expiration dates is responsible for 20% of food waste.

While many people think “best by” or “sell by” dates are indicators for food safety, the reality isn’t as clear cut.

Expiration dates and food labeling emerged during the 20th century as Americans increasingly stopped making their own food but still wanted to know how fresh it was. According to a 2013 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC), many Americans think their food is unsafe if the date they see on the label has already passed. However, these dates are not indicators that the food will make you sick; they only indicate when they are considered still fresh. Eating refrigerated food slightly past its prime may not taste as good as eating it fresh, but in most cases, it’s not going to harm you, according to the report. (And you might be surprised how long foods do last in the fridge.)

Here’s what those labels really mean:

“Sell by”: This date only indicates when the manufacturer suggests grocery stores should stop selling the product. It’s a way for companies to make sure their food is being sold when they determine it’s at the best quality.

“Best by” or “Best if used by” or “Use by”: Similar to “sell by”, this label marks the maker’s estimate of when the food will no longer be at its freshest, highest quality. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get sick if you eat it after the date, nor is it a guarantee that the food has even gone bad. Consumers may not notice a difference in quality.

None of these labels is actually an indicator of food safety; often, the date on the packaging and when the food may actually be no longer safe to eat don’t match up. For instance, raw shell eggs can last in the refrigerator for up to five weeks, according to FoodSafety.gov—which may be longer than the date stamped on the carton.

To keep your food safe, it’s important to make sure that refrigerated food doesn’t spend too much time in warmer temperatures, which make it more susceptible to bacteria growth. Certain foods like “ready to eat” dishes, infant formula and baby food should be consumed promptly.

Public health experts, like those at the NRDC and FLPC, argue better labeling that more accurately reflects spoiling dates would not only mean safer food consumption, but could also cut down on food waste. If labels could differentiate between safety and quality, it would be a much more useful system to consumers, the groups say.

To look up the shelf life and refrigerator life of your foods, try the Foodkeeper storage guide, a collaboration between the Food Marketing Institute at Cornell University and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Read Next: Americans Throw Away $640 Worth of Food Each Year

TIME India

Starbucks Removes Certain Flavorings From Indian Stores Over Health Concerns

Visitor looks at products on display during the launch of the first Starbucks store in New Delhi
Adnan Abidi—Reuters A visitor looks at products on display during the launch of the first Starbucks store in New Delhi, Feb. 6, 2013

First noodles, now coffee

Customers queuing up at Starbucks outlets in India will for now have to do without some of the coffee chain’s popular flavorings in their drinks, after the company suspended the use of certain ingredients rejected by Indian food safety inspectors, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The move comes days after Indian food safety inspectors banned Nestle’s popular Maggi noodles labeling them “unsafe and hazardous” after samples of the snack allegedly showed excessive levels of lead. Nestle, which pulled the noodles off shelves across the country earlier this month, insists the product is safe, saying it has conducted its own tests that showed levels “well within regulatory limits established in India.”

In a statement, Starbucks India — a joint venture between the U.S. coffee giant and the Indian conglomerate Tata — said it was working with India’s food safety inspectors to “to provide technical information relating to our pending ingredient applications that they have requested.”

“While we finalize the documentation necessary to complete these applications, we have initiated the suspension of applicable ingredients from certain products served in our stores,” read the statement by the venture’s chief executive, Avani Davda.

“It is important for me to emphasize that all of the imported globally standardized ingredients we serve in India, including those we are suspending, are safe and meet the safety standards in over 65 countries where Starbucks operates,” Davda added. “All of these imported ingredients received the then applicable product testing and safety authorizations when they were imported into India.”

Meanwhile, Nestle is working to destroy stocks of Maggi noodles, with India’s MINT newspaper reporting that the company was in the process of recalling over 27,000 tonnes of the snack in an exercise involving 3.5 million retail outlets.

TIME health

Meet the Secret Group That Decides Which Flavors Are ‘Natural’

Ingredients created by food companies flavor what Americans eat each day—everything from juice drinks and potato chips to ice cream and canned soups. They give Cheetos their addictive cheesy taste and help distinguish Jolly Ranchers from other fruit-flavored candies.

But the organization responsible for the safety of most “natural” and “artificial” flavors that end up in foods and beverages isn’t part of the U.S. government. Rather, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association—a secretive food industry trade group that has no in-house employees, no office of its own and a minuscule budget—serves as the de-facto regulator of the nation’s flavor additives.

The trade association, which operates with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s blessing, says that it makes research on the safety of various flavors available for public inspection.

“Oh, garbage,” said Susan Schiffman, an adjunct professor at North Carolina State University who studies sweeteners. “It’s not transparent.”

In late 2012, Schiffman and a colleague from the National Institutes of Health were months away from publishing a paper examining the biological effects of the popular artificial sweetener sucralose.

But first they needed to contact the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association.

The trade group, Schiffman learned, had recently approved the safety of a chemical compound that amplifies sweetness. She says she contacted the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association in December 2012 to learn the chemical’s name and identification number so that she could research its safety.

“They said, ‘We’ll call you back.’ No call back. So I called again. No call back,” Schiffman remembered. “So then I wrote a letter. Nothing happened.”

While her persistent requests went unanswered, Schiffman says she eventually received the information she needed from a flavor expert unaffiliated with the trade association. But Schiffman still had a problem: She couldn’t find safety data on the chemical anywhere.

When a scientist from the trade association finally called her back, Schiffman says she asked him for data supporting the safety of the sweetness-enhancing compound. But she says he refused to give it to her.

“‘There’s something in the food supply, and I can’t find out the toxicity of it?’” Schiffman recalled asking the flavor group scientist who declined her request. “They would not give me the safety data. … It was absolutely astounding.”

The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association disputes Schiffman’s version of events.

John Cox, the trade group’s executive director, wrote in an emailed statement to the Center for Public Integrity that Schiffman requested only information on the safety status of the flavor, which was “promptly provided” to her. But he said she never asked for the data supporting the determination.

“If Dr. Schiffman had requested the safety data,” Cox wrote, “we would have provided it to her.”

Public interest groups, however, share Schiffman’s frustration with the trade association. They, too, report getting stonewalled by the flavor group when requesting information about the industry’s safety determinations.

A ‘black box’

The largely industry-run system for evaluating flavors is “fundamentally problematic because it’s so opaque,” said Erik Olson, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s senior strategic director for health and food. “It’s a black box.”

Yet the system factors into food products found in nearly every consumer’s grocery cart.

In recent years, activist groups and social media campaigns have been demanding that food companies become more accountable to consumers and transparent about what they are adding to their products.

But most Americans know as little about the decidedly low-profile Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association and its safety assessments as they do about the more than 2,700 flavoring chemicals it has declared safe during the past five decades.

Moreover, public interest groups say the FDA’s recent response to a Freedom of Information Act request suggests that even the government may be blind to the science behind many of those flavors.

Much is at stake: The flavor industry’s system of self-policing helps it avoid government oversight, potentially saving companies significant amounts of time and money. In Europe, by contrast, companies must have their flavors and other ingredients reviewed for safety by an independent agency funded by the European Union.

The flavor industry makes its safety evaluations “behind closed doors” and then asks consumers to trust them, said Caroline Cox, research director for the Center for Environmental Health. “We just have enough experience with all kinds of toxic chemicals to know not to want to trust an evaluation if someone says, ‘Trust us, it’s all OK.’”

“There is some real need for reform here,” Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who serves on a subcommittee that oversees the FDA, said in an emailed statement. “We can do better than just letting the flavor industry decide for themselves which chemicals they can put in food without any oversight.”

Industry officials say flavors used in food sold in the United States are safe, pointing out that they pose very little health risk because they are used in such small doses. But identifying health concerns would seem to be difficult with so little scientific information publicly available behind some of the trade group’s safety decisions.

A Center for Public Integrity review of documents provided by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association found that four of the group’s most recent safety assessments depended largely on studies that were not published in scientific literature. Public interest groups say that is problematic because it doesn’t allow the scientific community to vouch for the industry’s safety decisions.

The Center for Public Integrity contacted two dozen flavor companies to discuss their ingredients and the process by which they evaluate their safety. Most of them either declined to comment or ignored interview requests.

Two company officials who responded in writing both stressed that flavor companies are very guarded about discussing such information.

“Given the competitive landscape in our industry, many companies, including ours, regard our flavor formulations as valuable proprietary business information,” Donald Wilkes, president and chief executive officer of California-based Blue Pacific Flavors, emailed in response to questions. “We typically do not share this information unless required to do so for legal reasons.”

Nevertheless, the public should be assured food flavor safety standards are high, said Kevin Renskers, president-elect of the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association and vice president for corporate safety and regulatory affairs at Takasago International Corp.

“FEMA operates the premier global program to assure the safety of flavor materials,” he responded in an email.

Lucrative business

The companies that make up the flavor industry—including international manufacturers such as Givaudan, Firmenich and Sensient—are not household names. But they make their money by selling flavors to big food companies such as Kellogg, Kraft and Nestlé.

Last year, Switzerland-based Givaudan reported 4.4 billion Swiss francs (roughly $4.8 billion) in sales of flavor ingredients. The company leads the industry with about 25 percent of the global market share in flavors and fragrances.

“The modern processed food industry could not flourish without the flavor industry,” said Kantha Shelke, a food scientist and spokeswoman for the Institute of Food Technologists, a society of food science professionals.

Today, Shelke said, the flavor industry is “big, it’s complicated and it’s sophisticated”—to the point where companies can create a product that tastes like guacamole without even using avocado as an ingredient. The goal, one industry scientist told CBS’ 60 Minutes in 2011, is to develop addictive flavors that consumers “want to go back for again and again.

Shelke says flavor companies don’t like to discuss their flavor compounds, partly because they are worried about scaring “chemophobic” consumers who might be frightened by long, unfriendly-sounding chemical names.

Consumers’ growing unease with chemicals in food has recently led companies to remove some controversial ingredients from their products. Fast food chain Subway, for example, announced last year that it was removing azodicarbonamide from its bread after a popular food blogger revealed that the chemical, used as a dough conditioner, was also used in making yoga mats.

Within the last month, Subway, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut each announced plans to remove artificial colors and flavorings from their products.

By law, flavor ingredients only have to be listed on food labels as “natural” or “artificial”—and rarely do labels volunteer additional information. Natural flavors are derived from plants and animals, while artificial flavors are synthetic chemicals. Both are produced in labs by scientists.

When it comes to questions about safety, flavor companies typically defer to the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association. The group is managed by Verto Solutions—a Washington, D.C., firm that provides scientific consulting, communications and government relations services to the flavor group, as well as other similar trade associations, including the International Association of Color Manufacturers, the International Organization of the Flavor Industry and Pickle Packers International.

While the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association reports no lobbying, it understands Congress’ power to regulate the food industry. The group is hosting its second annual congressional “fly-in” event on June 16-17 to “increase its visibility” and meet with representatives “to ensure that they are aware of the U.S. flavor manufacturing industry and its importance to the economy,” according to its website.

‘The highest standards for transparency’

The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association’s program for evaluating the safety of flavors has won praise from some corners of government, namely the FDA and the Government Accountability Office.

Its flavor safety program launched in 1960—two years after Congress passed the first law regulating ingredients added to food.

The law allows food companies to bypass a lengthy government-led safety review if they can establish that their ingredients are “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, for their intended use.

In other words, companies using the so-called GRAS process must demonstrate that there is a consensus among scientific experts that their ingredients are safe.

Companies have the option of involving the FDA in the process, but most ingredient manufacturers choose to make safety determinations without government oversight.

In Europe, the industry doesn’t have the option to police itself.

The European Union requires companies to have their new flavors and other additives reviewed by the European Food Safety Authority, an independent agency funded by the European Union.

The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association’s member companies—which produce 95 percent of all flavors on the market in the United States—typically forgo FDA review and instead choose to submit their flavors to the trade association for a safety review.

A standing panel of six to eight scientific experts oversees the trade group’s safety program and determines whether ingredients are generally understood to be safe by the scientific community. These experts, who are paid by the trade association, review published and unpublished data before making a conclusion on the safety of an ingredient’s use.

“From Takasago’s perspective, to have GRAS approval by the FEMA Expert Panel provides us with a high level of confidence that our material can be used safely,” said Renskers, the company official and Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association president-elect.

Industry officials stress that flavor ingredients generally pose very little safety risk because they are used in such small amounts in food. The trade group used this argument to support its conclusion that methyl eugenol is safe, despite studies finding that it causes cancer in animals.

The naturally occurring flavor, which the FDA has approved as a food additive, is used in foods including jellies, baked goods and chewing gum. The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association first determined methyl eugenol to be GRAS in 1965, but the group revisited that decision in 2001 after studies by the National Toxicology Program found “clear evidence of carcinogenic activity” of the substance in male and female rats and mice.

But the trade group still concluded that methyl eugenol “does not pose a significant cancer risk” to humans because it is used in food at such low levels.

After the trade group reconfirmed that it was safe, the International Agency for Research on Cancer found that methyl eugenol is “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association notes that many of the flavors it has reviewed over the years have also been evaluated for safety by other scientific bodies, including the European Food Safety Authority.

The Government Accountability Office praised the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association’s program in a 2010 report about the FDA’s limited oversight of food additives, specifically highlighting its procedures to prevent conflicts of interest and its practice of voluntarily informing the FDA about each of its safety determinations.

Scientists who serve on the flavor group’s expert panel are forbidden from having financial ties to companies submitting flavors for review. To that end, panelists’ stipends come from the trade association, rather than from companies directly. Panelists also review the safety of ingredients without knowing which company submitted them.

For these reasons and more, the trade group bills its GRAS program as “fully objective” and “not subject to bias.”

The Government Accountability Office report further applauded the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association for informing the FDA of flavor names, properties and reasons for the expert panel’s conclusion when notifying the agency of new safety determinations.

But if the FDA has such information, it can’t find it, according to the agency’s response to a recent Freedom of Information Act request.

Last October, the Center for Science in the Public Interest requested “all information that the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) has supplied to FDA since 1960 as support for its determinations that flavors it has evaluated are generally recognized as safe, or GRAS.”

The FDA’s May 21 response: “We have searched our files and find no responsive information.”

Laura MacCleery, the attorney for the public interest group who filed the records request, said she was “shocked” that the FDA’s response appears to contradict the flavor trade group’s public statements about sharing information with the FDA.

“We were worried about how we would handle the volume of documents,” MacCleery said. “I guess that’s not a concern.”

In an email, FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher said that the trade group “provides information about its GRAS lists to the FDA,” but she did not explain why this information was not produced in response to the public records request.

In addition, she said that a separate organization, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives, which is affiliated with the World Health Organization, “has evaluated nearly 2,000 FEMA flavoring agents.” Those evaluations are based on information provided to them by the trade group, according to the FDA. Since the mid-1990s, FDA staff has participated in the evaluations conducted by the international organization, Sucher added.

The GAO said that it based its 2010 report on interviews with the trade group and the FDA. Steve Morris, GAO’s director for food safety and agriculture, said in an email that he was not sure why the FDA could not produce the documents requested by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Overall, the FDA praises the trade group’s safety program.

“In the FDA’s experience,” Sucher wrote in an email, “FEMA makes scientifically rigorous, credible determinations that have stood up to the scrutiny of the scientific community of qualified experts.”

For its part, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association says it has long provided the FDA “with the basis for [each] FEMA GRAS determination … including all of the safety data.” Providing the Center for Science in the Public Interest “with all of the information that FEMA has provided to FDA since 1960 would likely fill five hundred boxes,” the trade group’s Cox said in a written response.

The trade association periodically announces its determinations in a food industry trade magazine, but those announcements do not include the data supporting the safety assessments.

However, the trade group, which boasts that its GRAS program “meets the highest standards for transparency,” says it will share safety data with any member of the public for only a copying fee.

Safety process questioned

Schiffman isn’t the only scientist who has recently cried foul on the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association.

Last September, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other public interest groups argued in a letter to the FDA that the trade group’s flavor safety program “does not comply with FDA policies.”

Their chief complaint: that the flavor trade association bases its safety decisions for new flavor chemicals on unpublished safety data.

To establish ingredients as “generally recognized as safe,” determinations typically rely on published studies to show that qualified scientists generally agree that the ingredients won’t harm consumers. This process allows companies to avoid subjecting their ingredients to an extensive FDA-led safety review.

The consumer groups’ letter points to comments Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food, made to The Washington Post last August: “The [GRAS] assessments need to be based on publicly available information where there is agreement among scientists,” the Post quoted Taylor as saying. “It has got to be more than three employees in a room looking at information that is only available to them.”

But the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, the public interest groups charge, doesn’t always follow such guidance.

In their letter to the FDA, they said they could find “no relevant published safety data” establishing the safety of a handful of flavors declared safe by the trade group last July.

“We asked FEMA for the published data on the four substances and it said there was none,” the letter stated, adding that the trade group offered to make 7,000 pages of unpublished data available for a $1,000 processing fee. “This practice is contrary to FDA guidance … and a common sense definition of general recognition.”

The Center for Public Integrity sent the FDA a detailed list of questions about the trade group’s flavor safety program. The list included inquiries about the advocacy groups’ complaints, the agency’s interpretation of regulations regarding the use of published data and the extent to which the agency reviews each of the trade association’s safety determinations.

After nearly two weeks, FDA spokeswoman Sucher emailed that “there are so many questions that we do not currently have the resources available to provide individual responses.”

Olson, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said FDA officials met with representatives of the public interest groups late last year to discuss their concerns about the trade association’s flavor safety program.

While agency officials listened to their complaints, he said they made no commitment to requiring the trade group to change how it runs its program.

Officials from the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association’s management firm would only answer questions in writing. The expert panelists paid by the trade group to assess the safety of flavors either declined to comment or did not respond to interview requests.

The trade association’s expert panel “reviews all available information relevant to its GRAS assessment to assure the safety of the candidate flavoring substance under its conditions of intended use whether the data are published or unpublished,” Cox wrote in response to questions.

He cited a section of the regulations governing GRAS assessments that notes that they “shall ordinarily” be based upon published studies.

In his response, however, Cox didn’t clearly answer a question about whether the trade group used only unpublished data to conclude that those four approved ingredients were generally recognized as safe. The Center for Public Integrity asked the trade group in an email to clarify how exactly those four safety determinations were made. Two days later, late on a Friday afternoon, two boxes of documents arrived at its newsroom.

Inside: 9,000 pages—75 pounds—of published and unpublished safety data supporting four of the most recently approved flavors, including what the trade association described as a fruity flavor, a savory flavor and a minty, cooling flavor.

The trade association declined a request to review the documents with reporters.

A ‘daisy chain of inference’

A Center for Public Integrity review of the documents revealed that the four safety determinations were based mostly on unpublished studies, many of which redacted the name of the chemical being studied to comply with the trade group’s conflict of interest procedures.

The published reports used as safety evidence for three of the four chemicals evaluated not the specific chemical at hand, but a component of it or a structurally related substance. After reviewing the documents at the Center for Public Integrity’s request, researchers who have authored several reports on the GRAS system for the Natural Resources Defense Council were skeptical.

“It’s a daisy chain of inference,” Tom Neltner, an attorney and chemical engineer, said as he looked over the documents.

Without published studies assessing the safety of the specific chemical in question, “It’s hard to say it’s ‘generally recognized as safe,’” added Olson.

As he leafed through documents, Olson said that the four flavors in question should have instead been submitted to the FDA for a thorough evaluation.

But the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association contends that it is operating according to government policies. In a written response to questions, Cox pointed out that safety assessments can involve “data on structurally related substances.”

FDA guidance states that such information can be used to support a safety determination, “depending on the circumstances.”

The FDA, however, did not respond to specific questions asking if the agency agreed that the trade association was following the rules on published data.

“When you have an industry like this making safety decisions, we are dependent on this trade association getting it right in order to protect public health,” Neltner said. “But the system is so opaque.”

Little is known about many of these chemicals outside the trade association, said Maricel Maffini, a scientist who has co-authored several Natural Resources Defense Council reports on food additives.

“You have to basically trust their judgment.”

This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization as part of their Misinformation Industry series. For more of their investigations, follow @publici on Twitter.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Ireland Is Getting Really Hardcore About Food Claims

artisan kneading bread
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A food is "traditional" only if the recipe is at least 30 years old, says new guidelines

McDonald’s “artisan” chicken sandwich would never fly in Ireland. Because according to the country’s new legal definitions of the word, that sandwich would have to be a limited-quantity, locally grown commodity made at a single location with a traditional recipe. (Artisan, in other words.)

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), which bills itself as the Irish version of the FDA, is cracking down on labeling with new, crystal-clear definitions of food terms often abused by the food industry: artisan, farmhouse, traditional and natural.

It took them two years to agree on definitions for four terms: a length of time that even surprised Dr. Wayne Anderson, director of food science and standards at FSAI and author of the new guidance document. “When I started it, I wouldn’t have believed it either. But we’re trying to make sure that when something is described as an artisan food, it actually is an artisan food, and not a large manufacturer using that term just to get people to buy it.”

Ireland is home to a growing artisan industry—the kind that makes small-batch dairy, cheese and honey. “That industry for Ireland is very important,” says Anderson. “It’s something we cherish and use to promote Ireland as the food island, the green island.” Ireland, therefore, has a vested interest in protecting these businesses from larger manufacturers trying to pass their products as straight from the farm.

The guidance won’t be legally binding, but will help the courts interpret food-related lawsuits, Anderson says. “If a company doesn’t choose to follow them and we believe that they are misleading the consumer, then we can ultimately take them to court under the labeling legislation, and then really it’s up to a judge to decide whether they misled the consumer or not.” Companies have until the end of 2016 to get into compliance.

Here’s what the popular food terms now mean in Ireland:


Artisan foods must be made in limited quantities by skilled craftspeople with a processing method that isn’t fully mechanized and follows a traditional method. They have to be made in a micro-enterprise—one that employs fewer than 10 people and makes less than 2 million Euro a year—at one single location. When practical and available, the food must be made with local ingredients.


These foods have to be made using a time-honored recipe that’s lasted, without significant change, for at least 30 years—or in a way that hasn’t changed for the same amount of time.


Farmhouse foods must actually be made on a micro-enterprise farm using locally grown ingredients.


“We’ve been having a bit of a problem over this one,” Anderson says. “What the consumer understands as natural and what the industry uses as the term natural aren’t necessarily the same.” Natural, as defined here, must be formed by nature: either a minimally processed, single-ingredient food that man hasn’t significantly interfered with, or a food with more than one ingredient—all of which must be formed by nature, without additives or artificial flavorings.

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