California is considering an EU-inspired mandate aimed at protecting children from the potential harms of food additives found in candy and other products. A bill that has gained the moniker of a Skittles ban is reviving arguments that pit the European Union’s precautionary principle against state and federal regulatory processes, striking a similar tone to previous battles over banning certain pesticides.
Democrats have seized on recent criticism of the FDA to argue the agency cannot be trusted with food safety and that lawmakers must act to protect Californians from harmful substances. To that end, Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel has introduced Assembly Bill 418 to enact a state ban beginning in 2025 on the manufacture, sale or distribution of food products containing red dye no. 3, titanium dioxide, potassium bromate, brominated vegetable oil or propylparaben. All are banned in the EU and can be found in baked goods, candy and sodas in the U.S.
“The FDA has really fallen down on the job,” said Gabriel during a policy committee hearing last week.
Representing the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, Gabriel argued AB 418 would close the GRAS loophole for foods “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA. He charged that the classification has allowed “chemicals like vinegar and sugar and other household items to escape review” and that 99% of the chemicals currently in the food supply have not faced meaningful independent review by the FDA, leading the U.S. to “fall behind” other countries.
“Food regulation in the U.S. has long lagged behind European standards,” said Lillian Zhou, a policy advocate for the Environmental Working Group, which is co-sponsoring AB 418 alongside Consumer Reports, a news organization that advocates on policy. “FDA almost never reassesses chemicals, even when there's new evidence of harm.”
Groups opposing the use of pesticides and GMOs have signed on in support of the measure.
Gabriel disputed claims that banning the ingredients would remove products like Skittles from store shelves. He described the legislation as encouraging companies to make minor modifications to their recipes to incorporate safer alternatives. Brands like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Panera Bread and Chipotle have already shifted away from products with the ingredients, leading Asm. Akilah Weber of La Mesa to view the issue as one that extends beyond health to social justice and equity.
Gabriel reasoned FDA banned the use of these ingredients in cosmetic products in 1990 but companies exploited the food safety loophole to continue use in other products. His bill is not the first to target the GRAS designation. In 2021 Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro filed federal legislation to overhaul the FDA process for determining the safety of additives, but it failed to progress in the House. She leaned on findings from Consumer Reports and a 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office urging FDA to strengthen its oversight of GRAS food ingredients. The New York Senate is proposing a similar prohibition on food and color additives to AB 418.
Yet food groups opposing Gabriel’s bill defended the FDA process for reviewing additives and ingredients.
“The current regulatory environment provides significant scientific oversight,” said Brendan Flanagan, who directs government affairs for the Consumer Brands Association. “These science-based processes should be allowed to continue without supplanting or second-guessing their outcomes.”
Flanagan pointed to existing state laws requiring companies to remove certain chemicals from foods, attach warning labels and find alternatives if additives are unsafe or expose consumers to allergies. State, federal and international agencies have deemed the products safe, he said, adding that FDA is currently reviewing a petition to remove red dye no. 3 from the GRAS designation. On the same day as the hearing, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) conducted a hearing on a petition from advocacy groups to require warning labels for several synthetic dyes.
Sarah Codrea, executive director of the International Association of Color Manufacturers, charged that Gabriel was misreading the FDA ruling on cosmetic products. The agency had denied a petition to allow the use of red dye no. 3 in cosmetics because of a legal standard, not a scientific one, she explained, noting FDA found it posed no threat to human health. The EU’s 2021 decision to ban synthetic dyes, meanwhile, was based on safety data not representative of the material approved for use as a food color, she said.
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“Why not wait until [FDA and CDPH] come back with some conclusion before coming out with this ban proposal?” questioned Republican Asm. Vince Fong of Bakersfield. “It seems like the cart is before the horse here.”
Gabriel responded that CalEPA’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment—known for its controversial Proposition 65 cancer warning labels—has found that synthetic food dyes can result in hyperactivity and other neurobehavioral problems in some children.
Concluding that FDA is structurally flawed becomes a bigger indictment, contended Fong.
“Are we questioning every decision FDA makes or is it only with these five items?” he asked, as he urged his colleagues to pause and consider any forthcoming data from the FDA and CDPH reviews.
Gabriel, however, described FDA’s regulatory oversight as flawed, allowing the industry to police itself, and called for reforms, since the agency has “really abdicated its responsibility on food.”
“I always assumed there was someone out there watching our back,” he said. “I've always maintained we don't love our kids in the state of California any less than they do in all these other countries.”
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