By Steve Armstrong
Question: FDA’s recent announcement delisting seven synthetic flavors caused a flurry of conversation and some confusion within the flavor and extract world. Would you clarify?
Armstrong: Thank you for the question and the opportunity to clear up confusion on FDA’s October 8, 2018 Constituent Update on the removal or delisting of seven synthetic flavors from the list of approved food additives. FDA was clearly reluctant to take this action, but it did so because several activist groups had petitioned for the delisting and then went to court to force FDA to take the action.
FDA made clear in its announcement in the Federal Register that it was only de-listing the synthetic form of these substances, which are labeled as “artificial flavors.” This means that a flavor manufacturer need only remove these synthetic substances from its flavor portfolio. These include synthetically-derived benzophenone, ethyl acrylate, eugenyl methyl ether (methyl eugenol), myrcene, pulegone, and pyridine. In addition, the FDA also is amending the food additive regulations to no longer provide for benzophenone’s use as a plasticizer in rubber articles intended for repeated use in contact with food.
In the Federal Register notice published on October 9, 2018 the agency said its revocation of the approvals “does not affect the legal status of foods containing natural counterparts or non-synthetic flavoring substances extracted from food.” FDA noted that each of the seven synthetic substances has a natural counterpart in food or in natural substances used to flavor foods. For example, they say, “benzophenone is present in grapes, ethyl acrylate is present in pineapple, eugenyl methyl ether (methyl eugenol) is present in basil, myrcene is present in citrus fruit, pulegone is present in peppermint, and pyridine is present in coffee.”
According to the Federal Register notice and the communication on FDA’s website, companies may continue to use the seven flavors provided they are only made from the natural extracts and are labeled as “natural flavors.” Companies using these synthetic flavors have 24 months from the publication of the rule in the Federal Register to identify suitable replacement ingredients and reformulate their food products.
This is an unusual situation and one precipitated by the Delaney Clause, an antiquated section of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. That section of the law prohibits FDA from approving a food additive if, after appropriate testing, it is found that the additive induces cancer in humans or animals. The clause is absolute. It does not provide FDA any leeway for applying a scientific risk assessment, even in situations where, as in the present case, the usage levels of an additive are low and inherently self-limiting, meaning exposures well below any area where they could possibly present any cancer risk. However, the petitioners had submitted data showing high levels of these synthetic substances did induce cancer in lab animals.
So, even though FDA had no concerns about either the synthetic or natural versions of these seven flavors, which had been used for decades, with no concerns about their safety as presently used in foods, the Delaney Clause required that the agency, as a legal matter, take the action requested by the petitioners. Six of the seven were delisted in response to these citizen petitions; the seventh (Styrene) was delisted because it is no longer in use. The agency clearly did not like having to take his step, but the Delaney Clause gave it no choice. The decision to de-list, it said, was required as a legal matter, not a scientific one. It’s possible that this action may signal an effort by the flavor and extract industry to modify the Delaney Clause.