Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods, said in an interview that he feels the program works well but that it is time to consider updating it to ensure the evidence supporting "safe" designations reflects the latest science. He added that FDA would benefit from having access to the scientific evidence companies use to determine that an ingredient is GRAS.
"We're not driven by a sense that there is a pressing public health emergency," Taylor said. "But there are decisions being made based on data that we don't have access to, and that creates a question about the basis on which those decisions are made."
In 1969, President Richard Nixon ordered FDA to review food additives then on the "safe" list. While concluding most ingredients were safe, the review panel questioned the safety of 35 substances. In its 2010 examination of the program, the GAO found FDA had yet to review 18 of those. The agency could not readily explain why, but has in the past pointed to short staffing.
The GAO also recommended that companies be required to tell FDA and the public about any ingredients they deem "safe," and that FDA take steps to prevent scientific conflicts of interest.
Taylor said that over the next year FDA may send out new administrative rules detailing how companies should demonstrate ingredient safety, but he noted it would take an act of Congress to force companies to share all their information with FDA.
George Washington University's Public Health Dean Lynn Goldman, who in 2011 studied the GRAS program at FDA's request, believes letting companies evaluate their own ingredients risks biased science. "The public should expect that the FDA can give some assurance that the safety of our food is not simply determined by the industry," she said.