The temporary change is intended to provide flexibility due to supply chain disruptions—does it mean we won't know exactly what’s in our food?

By Mike Pomranz
May 27, 2020
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Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve likely struggled to find every ingredient you’ve wanted at the grocery store. (Yeast, anyone?) As a result, maybe you’ve tweaked some recipes to work with what you got. Desperate times call for desperate measurements. But should food manufacturers be granted similar leniency? The FDA recently decided they should.

On Friday, the FDA issued updated guidance allowing for “additional temporary flexibility in food labeling requirements to manufacturers,” the agency wrote. “The goal is to provide regulatory flexibility, where appropriate, to help minimize the impact of supply chain disruptions on product availability associated with the current COVID-19 pandemic.”

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However, regardless of what the goal is, the implication could prove a bit more unsettling to some people: Ingredients lists don’t have to be as accurate as they used to be… within reason, hopefully.

The FDA states that these “minor formulation changes” must still meet specific criteria. Safety is listed first, with the explanation that any ingredient substitutions must “not cause any adverse health effect (including food allergens, gluten, sulfites, or other foods known to cause sensitivities in some people).” Additionally, other factors like quantity, prominence, health claims, and nutrition/functionally are all addressed. And the changes also can’t remove a “characterizing ingredient”—meaning “for example, omitting raisins, a characterizing ingredient in raisin bread.”

The intentions of the new rule make sense: For example, the FDA explains that they are “aware that currently there is a shortage of the bleaching agent used to bleach flour,” so these new rules allow “temporary flexibility for the substitution of unbleached flour for bleached flour without a corresponding label change while there continue to be bleached flour shortages.”

But the timing of announcement—on the Friday before the Memorial Day weekend—along with the fact that these “temporary” changes have no firm end date has added to worries that this move may be the deregulation-prone Trump administration trying to chip away FDA rules not only now, but into the future. “We have no objection to temporary flexibilities in this moment, but we view with suspicion the notion that you’d want to continue those after the emergency,” Laura MacCleery, policy director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said according to The Washington Post. “They say they will take comments and consider an extension beyond the public health emergency.”

For those interested in the specific details of the new rules, the guidance can be downloaded from the FDA website. Additionally, for allergy sufferers worried about any potential ramifications the change may have, the food allergy advocacy site SnackSafely.com provided its own analysis.