October 6, 2013
Now that “food songs month” is behind us it’s time to get serious again in the Thornapple blog. And so to demonstrate just how serious we can be, we turn from the hit list to the grass list. This turn of mind was brought on by John’s comment to the last entry in food songs month. In the course of deconstructing Hank Williams’ reference to filé gumbo I happened to mention that sassafras has been banned by the FDA (or the Ef-Dee-Ayuh, if you are someone who has more than two partially used bottles of filé gumbo sitting in your spice cabinet as we speak). Those of you who have stumbled onto the blog because you were looking for knock-offs of famous-name women’s shoes or bridal wear will probably want to click back to “Hit List” in order to get the full gist of John’s comment, but in short he was questioning the acuity of my judgment with respect to Federal food safety policy. And I’m afraid that I will have to admit that he was right.
John’s comment gets right to the straight poop, and since his comment is already posted in front of God and everyone, I’m not going to rehash it. As John states, it’s safrole, not sassafras, that fell victim to the Delaney Clause, which requires FDA to prohibit anything shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals from being used in food. Safrole is found naturally in sassafras root, which led to a lot of the pretty fantastic root beers that I knew in my youth disappearing from the big, ice-water coolers in gas stations that I also knew in my youth, only to disappear themselves. Which could become the lead in for a tirade about how somebody has ruint Amarkha, but for the fact that there are so many candidates for the role that I’m completely at a loss for who it would be that I would want to launch a tirade against.
And so I’ll spend the rest of this morning’s blog writing about a subject that is always a topic of utter astonishment whenever I give serious lectures at serious places and the subject comes around to the regulation of foods. That subject would, of course, be the grass list. It’s actually the GRAS list, but knowing how sophisticated readers of the Thornapple blog would immediately be inclined to pronounce this “the graw list” (as in foie gras or mardi gras), my erroneous spelling is in service to a larger sense of truth. GRAS is “Generally Regarded As Safe”. It’s literally a list kept by the FDA that consists of foods and food ingredients that, though they may not have been scientifically tested, have been eaten by loads of people for who knows how long. Some of them may be killing some portion of people, but we haven’t figured that out yet. So why not just throw up your hands, look to the sky and regard them as safe?
And why not, say I? In fact, I think this is pretty good public policy. We eat so many different things, we eat them in so many different combinations and amounts, and we are ourselves so different in our genetic disposition to so many different possible chemical and biotic agents that it is, frankly, impossible even to collect meaningful data on real-world food consumption that would be of any use in a toxicological analysis. So instead, scientists run potentially misleading experiments on things they suspect are risky by feeding copious amounts to lab rats. People make fun of these studies, but when one of them shows that, say safrole, is mildly carcinogenic, the FDA duly and properly stops regarding it as safe. There’s also plenty of stuff that chemists are capable of cooking up that the FDA does not regard as safe, so the principle does, in fact, have real teeth. This does not stop people from being totally stunned and stupefied when I tell them that their government regulators are relying on something so prosaic as a GRAS list. But if you don’t believe me, take a gander at the mind-numbing bureaucratic prose your own self.
It’s too bad about the root beer, though.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University