"Toxic chemicals in our food": California bill would ban additives already prohibited in Europe

"Things like this aren’t partisan. They’re common sense," said former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published July 3, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Woman shopping in a grocery store (Getty Images/Moyo Studio)
Woman shopping in a grocery store (Getty Images/Moyo Studio)

On June 28, the California Senate Committee on Health approved the first-in-the-nation bill to ban five harmful chemicals from candy, cereals, and other processed food. Assembly Bill 418, which has already passed the state's lower house, is getting close to a vote in the Senate in the coming weeks, which would then put it on Governor Gavin Newsom's desk to be signed into law.

When Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel (D-Calif.) of California's 46th district first introduced the legislation back in February, a lot of media outlets ran headlines about how the banning of Red Dye No. 3 — an ingredient in some candies that has been prohibited from use in cosmetics since 1990 — would impact the sale of Skittles in the state. Through the hyperspeed game-of-telephone that is the internet, a lot of the discourse surrounding this bill has been flattened to, "California is trying to ban Skittles." 

But the legislation runs deeper than that — and has international precedent. 

Assembly Bill 418 would prohibit "the manufacture, sale or distribution of any food product in California containing Red Dye No. 3, Titanium Dioxide, Potassium Bromate, Brominated Vegetable Oil, or Propyl Paraben."

"Californians shouldn't have to worry that the food they buy in their neighborhood grocery store might be full of dangerous additives or toxic chemicals," said Gabriel in a February statement. "This bill will correct for a concerning lack of federal oversight and help protect our kids, public health, and the safety of our food supply."

Two national non-governmental organizations are backing AB 418: Consumer Reports and The Environmental Working Group. Susan Little is the Environmental Working Group's Governmental Affairs Senior Advocate for California. 

"Why are these toxic chemicals in our food?"

"Why are these toxic chemicals in our food?" said Little in a statement.. "We know they are harmful and that children are likely eating more of these chemicals than adults. It makes no sense that the same products food manufacturers sell in California are sold in the EU but without these toxic chemicals. We thank Assemblymember Gabriel's efforts to remove these toxic additives from California's food supply."

As Little indicated, the European Union has already banned these five food chemicals — with the exception of Red Dye No. 3, which can only be used in very specific brands of candied cherries — because there is research to indicate that they are carcinogenic. So, why are these ingredients still in our food? 

Some of them, like Potassium Bromate and Brominated Vegetable Oil, have fallen into a loophole that allows some substances that were in use before regulations took effect to stay on the market. As Roni Caryn Rabin wrote for the New York Times in 2018, a 1958 amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act prohibits the Food and Drug Administration from approving food additives that are linked to cancer. 

"[B]ut an agency spokeswoman said that many substances that were in use before passage of the amendment, known as the Delaney amendment, are considered to have had prior approval and 'therefore are not regulated as food additives,'" Rabin found. 

This means that some of these additives have not been assessed for safety by the FDA for over 50 years, despite the number of peer-reviewed studies that have linked these food chemicals to serious health risks during that time. 

Over the last four months, AB 418 has continued to garner support, including from former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wrote in a recent issue of his newsletter Arnold's Pump Club that "things like this aren't partisan. They're common sense." 

"I've been through these fights when I was Governor," he wrote. "I'm a small government guy. But I've also seen that sometimes, in a world where every big industry has an army of lobbyists, and our kids have no one fighting for them, government has to step in. You wouldn't believe the crap lobbyists said to me when I limited junk food in schools or banned trans fats as Governor. They can never believe when someone stands up to them." 

Schwarzenegger went on to write that he was "proud of Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel for writing this bill" and is happy to support it. 

Some members of the snack food industry have spoken out against the bill, including the National Confectioners Association, which issued the following statement to TODAY

Chocolate and candy are safe to enjoy, as they have been for centuries. We strongly oppose AB 418 because there is no evidence to support banning the ingredients listed in the bill. The ingredients that would be banned under this proposal have all been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food safety is the number one priority for U.S. confectionery companies, and we do not use any ingredients in our products that do not comply with the FDA's strictest safety standards.

However, Gabriel has pointed out that many candy and snack companies already have alternate formulas they use when selling their products in Europe. He just wants them to do the same here in the United States. 

Following last Tuesday's vote by the California Senate Committee on Health, Gabriel said "it's  unacceptable that the U.S. is so far behind the rest of the world when it comes to banning these dangerous additives."

"We don't love our children any less than they do in Europe, and it's not too much to ask food and beverage manufacturers to switch to the safer alternative ingredients that they already use in Europe and so many other nations around the globe," said Gabriel.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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