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.