California Legislature passes first bill in U.S. to ban food additives, including red dye No. 3

The California Legislature has passed a first-of-its-kind bill to ban four food additives linked to potential health issues.

If Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signs it, Assembly Bill 418 would prohibit the sale of foods and drinks in California that contain red dye No. 3, potassium bromate, brominated vegetable oil and propylparaben starting in 2027. If it is enacted, it would mark the first time that a state has banned food additives that are permitted by the Food and Drug Administration.

The four chemicals are already illegal in the European Union and many other places around the world, but they can be found in products sold in the U.S., such as some brands of orange soda, icing, hamburger rolls, candies and processed foods.

Assembly member Jesse Gabriel, who introduced the bill along with Assembly member Buffy Wicks, a fellow Democrat, praised it as a victory for public health. In addition to being in foods targeted toward kids, Gabriel said, the four additives are often in packaged items that are marketed to low-income communities and communities of color.

“It’s going to make our food supply much safer,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “It’s going to give parents more confidence that when they’re buying foods at the grocery store, they don’t have to worry that there’s something in there that’s dangerous for their kids.”

The additives serve a variety of purposes, from making food look more appealing to helping it last longer on the shelves.

The FDA has long banned red dye No. 3, an artificial color derived from petroleum, from cosmetics because of studies showing it causes cancer in lab animals in high doses. Yet it’s still used to give foods and medicines a bright red hue. Studies have indicated that artificial food dyes are associated with behavioral problems in children, including hyperactivity; the FDA has maintained there is no evidence of a causal relationship for children in the general population who haven’t been diagnosed with behavioral disorders.

Potassium bromate, a flour additive that improves the texture of baked goods and allows bread to rise higher, has also been linked to cancer in lab animals.

Brominated vegetable oil, an emulsifier found in citrus drinks to prevent flavoring from floating to the top, has been tied to a variety of health concerns, including behavioral and reproductive issues in lab animals.

Propylparaben is a preservative used in cosmetics and food that is believed to mimic estrogen, potentially acting as an endocrine disruptor.

“This is a truly historic win for consumers,” said Scott Faber, the senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy health organization that backed AB 418. “No one should have to worry about eating toxic chemicals.”

Known as the California Food Safety Act, AB 418 passed the state Senate on Monday evening after it advanced in the state Assembly in May.

The bill initially included a fifth food additive, titanium dioxide, which was dropped because it didn’t have as much bipartisan support, Gabriel said.

“Another goal here was to send a message to the FDA, to send a message to Washington, D.C., to send a message to the industry, and passing this bill with strong bipartisan support is a much more effective way to do that,” he said.

AB 418 could have reverberations nationally: Faber said he expected large manufacturers would remove the banned additives from their products altogether, as opposed to tailoring sales just for California.

“I expect all the companies that make cookies, candies and other processed foods to quickly reformulate well before that 2027 deadline,” he said.

Making the switch to other ingredients shouldn’t be difficult, Gabriel said. He cited an analysis by the state Assembly Health Committee, which was shared with NBC News, that found that readily available alternatives exist — and are often less expensive.

“This is not going to lead to any products or any foods coming off the shelf. This is not a ban on any food or any product,” Gabriel said. “It is simply going to require companies to make very, very minor modifications to their recipes, which are the same recipes that they’re already using in other countries.”

The International Food Additives Council, a trade association, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Gabriel’s bill. Neither did the FDA.

The International Association of Color Manufacturers referred to a statement on its website in which it said no regulatory authority, including the FDA, “has found credible safety concerns with FD&C Red No. 3 and maintains it is safe for use in food.”

“Actions like California’s AB 418 are not based on sound scientific assessments and undermine established regulations that have long ensured food safety,” the association said, adding that the FDA is re-evaluating red dye No. 3 and that it “awaits any new evidence-backed conclusions from FDA and other leading regulatory bodies.”

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