The FDA does not approve knives. The FDA does not approve the material knives are made from. The FDA does not approve “food grade” stainless steel or aluminum. If a kitchen knife or any other piece of kitchen equipment meant for food preparation or contact claims to be FDA approved or made from materials which are FDA approved, the seller is being misleading or is simply confused.
I was just looking at an amusing Amazon product, whiskey bullets, which are like ice cubes for tough guys. These are pieces of stainless steel meant to be chilled in the freezer and placed in your whiskey or other drink to cool it down. The obvious question is whether this material is safe to put in your whiskey, notwithstanding that metal projectiles represent a choking hazard when placed in a drink. According to the seller, “our whiskey stones are made from FDA approved food-grade 304 stainless steel. Stay away from material made out of aluminum as it’s been linked to health problems…”
This entire answer is misleading, including aluminum being linked to health problems, as there is no credible evidence to support this. There is a difference between saying that the FDA doesn’t disapprove of a material or product and saying something is FDA-approved. The FDA is not in the business of “approving” whiskey stones or the materials they are made from. The same goes for knives, utensils, etc. You will come across many products claiming to be FDA approved. This may lead you to believe that the product has been through some type of regulatory process and subjected to testing and proof of safety, after which it has been approved for sale by the Food and Drug Administration. This is not the case. Only drugs are subject to FDA approval. Foods are regulated but not subject to direct approval before being marketed. The same thing goes for dietary supplements.
With so many people selling so many different products, and with so many of them being small entrepreneurs who are not necessarily cognizant of the legality of the claims they make, it is possible for confusion to occur. Some sellers making these claims probably do think their product is FDA approved simply because they misunderstand the meaning of the term and the purpose of the Food Code published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Public Health Service of the Food and Drug Administration:
Pay close attention to the opening language of this food code, offered below:
The Food Code is a model for safeguarding public health and ensuring food is unadulterated and honestly presented when offered to the consumer. It represents FDA’s best advice for a uniform system of provisions that address the safety and protection of food offered at retail and in food service.
This model is offered for adoption by local, state, and federal governmental jurisdictions for administration by the various departments, agencies, bureaus, divisions, and other units within each jurisdiction that have been delegated compliance responsibilities for food service, retail food stores, or food vending operations. Alternatives that offer an equivalent level of public health protection to ensure that food at retail and foodservice is safe are recognized in this model.
The food code is a “model” and is “offered” for adoption by local, state, and federal government jurisdictions. It represents the FDA’s “best advice.” This advice is meant for “food service operations, retail food stores, or food vending operations.”
FDA Food Code is Meant For Food Service Operations, Not Home Cooks
These first two paragraphs often go unnoticed. This food code is not meant as a guideline for home kitchens, although the advice therein is generally applicable. However, people generally fail to comprehend that these are not regulations, but simply well-considered advice to be taken into consideration by local authorities in establishing their health codes for food service operations. These health codes do not apply to products offered for sale to home cooks. They are recommendations as to regulating operations that provide food directly to the consumer. In other words, not only does the FDA not regulate kitchen knives and whiskey stones, the food codes, often cited, are not even meant to regulate restaurants.
Since I’ve reviewed a few knives here are Culinary Lore, as well as offered knife-related content, I get more than a few requests from knife vendors asking me to review their product. Once such product, which did indeed seem like a very nice knife, featured an “FDA Approved” logo on its Amazon artwork and in the product description. I will not name the company as I do not wish to embarrass them or even offer any criticism. The FDA Approved logo was removed after I informed the company of their mistake. The reason I did not review the knife was that I never review products based on requests from companies. These are usually Amazon products and one of my promises to the reader is that any Amazon link I place on this site is chosen solely at my discretion without any outside input. This means no reviews on request. For this reason, I feel alright about using this exchange as an example.
Upon their request for a review, I replied to the company that I would have to decline their offer. I didn’t go into explaining all the reasons why. I simply informed them that one good reason was that there is no such thing as an FDA approved knife and I would certainly never review a product if I felt the marketing was dishonest or misleading.
The owner replied and told me that their knife meets the FDA standard for taste transfer “that normally occurs with knives.” It is regulated in the FDA standards item 4-101.11 for multi-use utensils and cookware.
The owner was citing the food code linked above and was under the mistaken impression that it regulated the materials used for multi-use utensils and cookware. This could mislead consumers in itself, but the claim is even more misleading. As I replied in my email:
…By saying your knife is FDA approved you mislead customers into thinking you have submitted your product to some kind of FDA vetting process that results in an approval. Furthermore, the guidelines you mention cover pretty much any knife on the market and in no way set your knife apart. In terms of transfer, they mention allowing the migration of “deleterious substances” that impart colors, odors, or tastes to food. You stated this “normally occurs with knives.” If you are telling me that the average kitchen knife allows the migration of deleterious substances or imparts colors, odors, or tastes to food” where yours does not, then I can tell you from long experience that this is simply a misleading statement.
All the attributes covered in those FDA guidelines are, in fact, pretty much what the public would expect of any kitchen knife. Safe, durable, made of smooth metal, etc. I understand your desire to defend you assertion, but you are making misleading claims as to your FDA statement. If you have a document sent to you by the FDA that pertains to a mysterious FDA approval process that I’ve never heard talk of, that I would like to see. This ploy of stating that products are FDA approved when no such approval exists is quite common. It really needs to stop as it is false and misleading to customers.
I do not wish to single out a single company. My reply is the same type of reply I would have made to any such company making this assertion. It turned out that the owner was simply going by a document they received from their manufacturer that stated that the materials used in the knife passed the FDA standard for chemical/taste transfer. Once informed, the company removed the misleading logo from its artwork.
Do Not Let Claims of FDA Approval Influence Your Purchasing Decisions
So, you can see that this kind of mistake could be quite common, especially on Amazon, and it is not necessarily done to be intentionally misleading. Such products may well be fine products. However, do NOT let claims of FDA approval or meeting FDA standards guide you in making purchases as they will likely fail to differentiate the product from other comparable products.
Another set of guidelines that may be cited is the American National Standard/NSF International Standard for Food Equipment Materials. The NSF is an independent public health and safety organization. In regards to stainless steel, the NSF states that stainless steel used in food equipment shall be of a type in the AISI 200 series, 300 series, or 400 series. The organization also has standards for aluminum, copper and copper alloys, metallic coatings and zinc coatings. The NSF states that it is strictly prohibited to use this designation (the food equipment standards) in whole or part to indicate conformance with this standard without written permission. In other words, unless the NSF has specifically given a company permission to do so, stating that it meets certain guidelines of the NSF is not endorsed by the NSF. This is not dissimilar to the situation with the FDA. The FDA in no way endorses companies who are using its food code to claim compliance with its food code.
What does the FDA actually have to say about all this? The applicable part of the food codes, which are very robust, is chapter 4, Equipment, Utensils, and Linens:
4-1 MATERIALS FOR CONSTRUCTION AND REPAIR
4-102 Single-Service and Single-Use
Multiuse 4-101.11 Characteristics.
Materials that are used in the construction of UTENSILS and FOOD-CONTACT SURFACES of EQUIPMENT may not allow the migration of deleterious substances or impart colors, odors, or tastes to FOOD and under normal use conditions shall be:
(A) Safe; P
(B) Durable, CORROSION-RESISTANT, and nonabsorbent;
(C) Sufficient in weight and thickness to withstand repeated
(D) Finished to have a SMOOTH, EASILY CLEANABLE surface;
(E) Resistant to pitting, chipping, crazing, scratching,
scoring, distortion, and decomposition.
Notice that this is very open-ended. Notice also that, as I stated above, these are characteristics most consumers would expect knives and cookware to have. If you are a fan of cast iron cookware, you may realize that cast iron does not meet all these guidelines, but it gets a pass:
4-101.12 Cast Iron, Use Limitation.
(A) Except as specified in ¶¶ (B) and (C) of this section, cast iron may not be used for UTENSILS or FOOD-CONTACT SURFACES of EQUIPMENT.
(B) Cast iron may be used as a surface for cooking.
(C) Cast iron may be used in UTENSILS for serving FOOD if the UTENSILS are used only as part of an uninterrupted process from cooking through service.
4-101.13 Lead, Use Limitation.
(A) Ceramic, china, and crystal UTENSILS, and decorative UTENSILS such as hand painted ceramic or china that are used in contact with FOOD shall be lead-free or contain levels of lead…
You can read more, if you desire, by consulting the link to the food code above.