The Californian food industry is on a collision course with consumer groups over the proposed introduction of acrylamide warning labels on food products, writes Anthony Fletcher.
The state's voter-approved warning-label law, Proposition 65, requires that manufacturers alert customers about the existence of cancer-causing compounds in food.
But the inclusion of acrylamide, a carcinogen that is created when starchy foods are baked, roasted, fried or toasted, on labels is fiercely opposed by the food industry, despite claims that there is a legal obligation on food firms to inform customers of all possible dangers.
"There is enormous pressure from the food industry on the regulatory authorities to exempt cooked foods from this new law," Mike Schmitz of the California League for Environmental Enforcement Now told FoodNavigator-USA.com.
Food processors remain resolutely opposed to such a warning, fearing that such labeling would needlessly scare consumers. They argue that obesity, over-consumption and alcohol are much more likely to increase the risk of cancer than trace levels of carcinogens in food.
As a result, they are demanding an exemption, which the state, or rather the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) , is now considering.
"The food industry is terrified about consumer reaction," said Schmitz. "But there is a precedent. Seafood has warnings about mercury levels, and this hasn't led to drastic decline."
He maintains that not only are industry fears misplaced, but that public opinion is against them.
"Polls consistently bear out the fact that people want to know what they are eating," he said. "Proposition 65 is a popular initiative, and I'm convinced that if there was more coverage of this issue, then people would be very interested."
Acrylamide, a synthetic polymer used for grout and in treating sewage, was placed on California's Proposition 65 carcinogen list in 1990. Twelve years later, Swedish scientists discovered acrylamide was created when starchy foods were cooked at high temperatures.
"The industry's argument that acrylamide is a naturally occurring chemical simply does not make any sense," said Schmitz. "Acrylamide is a listed chemical by the state's scientific experts. That means Californians should be warned about its presence in products."
An FDA list from March 2004 shows the acrylamide levels - in parts perbillion - of many brands of food. This list can be found here .
Sample warning label
A suggested warning developed by state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment for foods containing acrylamide:
Warning: Baking, roasting, frying and toasting starchy foods forms acrylamide, a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer.