By Kuei-Jung Ni
In response to the petition launched by a food blogger, FoodBabe, Subway, a big fast food chain, announced the removal of Azodicarbonamide (ADA) in bread production on February 6. As an ingredient for dough conditioner, the chemical is also used to make yoga mats and shoe rubber. Apart from Subway, other food companies, like McDonald’s, Starbucks, Kraft and Chick-fil-A have been targeted for using the chemicals.
In North America, ADA is a legal additive for food processing as long as the residual does not surpass the safe level. In the United States, it has been listed in the “Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS)” category that exempts additives from a more restrictive premarket approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) that decides international food safety standards, the safe limit of ADA is up to 45 ppm. The United States and Canada permit the use of the additive at the same levels.
Nevertheless, the World Health Organization has linked the substance to respiratory issues, allergies, and asthma as workers experience environmental exposure where the chemical is manufactured or used. Of course, one would expect that risks would be different for people who consume food containing very small amounts of the chemical; the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) observes small or negligible risks from consumption, but still urges FDA to ban use or raise the safe level on the grounds that the chemical is an unnecessary additive. Many countries that take a precautionary approach, including UK, the European Union and Australia, outlaw ADA in food production.
The FDA policy that sets a safe level for using chemical additives legally is not always without skeptics. The cost of inspections to ensure the compliance of producers with the levels could be very high. Also, using a number benchmark, even based on scientific finding, deprives consumers of the option or freedom of eating chemical free food when no label for chemicals is mandated. On the other hand, if zero tolerance of additives in food may not be possible for all food safety managements, FDA should, apart from applying the ”generally recognized as safe” formula, provide a more solid rationale on why consumers should accept the arrangement, especially when many countries have banned the use. Further, to enhance transparency, people are entitled to know how and on what process the data or finding to sustain the level of protection is produced and FDA should justify the taking of such data.
Although it may be appropriate to allow use of this chemical in other contexts that consumers could more easily avoid, it is arguably justifiable for consumers to demand a higher level of protection for what they eat because food consumption constitutes an essential part of daily life. The growing concerns about food safety locally or globally may explain the success of consumers’ pressure in shaping the behavior of food producers, although the regulatory regime has yet to take further actions.