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FDA issues 'softly worded' draft guidance on acrylamide

By Maggie Hennessy , 15-Nov-2013

Acrylamide, a potential carcinogen, is found in 40 percent of the calories consumed in the average American diet, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
Acrylamide, a potential carcinogen, is found in 40 percent of the calories consumed in the average American diet, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a draft guidance for the food industry to help growers, manufacturers and operators work toward reducing levels of acrylamide in certain foods.

The FDA is not suggesting maximum recommended levels for the potential carcinogen, instead recommending that manufacturers be aware of acrylamide levels in their products in order to determine the best methods for reduction.

“It’s a laundry list of recommendations that are pretty softly worded,” said Ricardo Carvajal, FTC and FDA regulatory counsel at Hyman, Phelps and McNamara in Washington, DC. “If you look at spud-to-table continuum, there are 30 things the industry could do to minimize formation of acrylamide. But which ones really matter? Are there one or two things companies focus on? And what’s the return on investment here? That part isn’t very clear.”

The guidance covers raw materials, processing practices, and ingredients affecting potato- and cereal-based foods and coffee (all considered significant sources of acrylamide exposure), offering possible approaches that growers, manufacturers and foodservice operators can take to help reduce acrylamide levels. Click here to see full text of the guidance.

Acrylamide is present at high levels in starchy foods when they’re cooked using high-temperature methods, such as frying, grilling or baking. This is due to the maillard reaction, in which sugars react with the amino acid asparagine to give foods like French fries, cookies, cereals, crackers and coffee their brown color and toasty flavor. According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, acrylamide is found in 40 percent of the calories consumed in the average American diet.

The chemical has been an industry concern since 2002, when Swedish researchers pinpointed it as a suspected carcinogen.  The US Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program characterizes it as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” It was officially recognized as a potential carcinogen by the European Food Safety Authority in 2005 and a 2010 joint WHO/FAO report concluded it may be a human health concern.

EU guidance much more specific

Carvajal expects there will be a number of comments on the guidance by the sectors most affected, adding that its tentative tone is in stark contrast to the European Union’s move earlier this week to set new levels for acrylamide in foods, going so far as to recommend firms’ factor the formation of acrylamide into their HAACP plans.

“If the European Commission is the point of comparison here then the FDA’s approach looks pretty flexible,” Carvajal added. “The FDA’s approach is more in line with, ‘look we want to drive down levels as much as possible, but we don’t want people making big adjustments in their dietary patterns.”

Indeed, possibly the trickiest part could be that the industry really has little control once the products get into consumers’ hands, he added.

“Once you get to the end point, the food industry has no control. I could do all these things to minimize presence of acrylamide and have consumers throw that out the window by their choice of cooking them. That aspect of it I find a little problematic.”

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