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Chip companies settle acrylamide lawsuit

By Sarah Hills, 04-Aug-2008

Related topics: Cultures, enzymes, yeast, Suppliers

Heinz, Frito-Lay, Kettle Foods and Lance Inc have agreed to slash levels of the cancer-causing chemical acrylamide in their potato chips and French fries, settling a lawsuit against them.

California’s attorney general had sued a number of French fry and potato chip companies under an act which requires companies to post warnings of any cancer-causing chemicals in their products, unless they can prove that the levels do not pose a significant health risk.

Acrylamide is a by-product of frying, roasting and baking foods that contain certain amino acids and in 2002, Swedish scientists discovered high levels of cancer-causing acrylamide in fried potato products.

The legal action began in 2005 when the attorney general sued McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, KFC, Frito-Lay, Kettle Foods, Lance, Procter & Gamble and Heinz, for selling potato chips and French fries containing high levels of acrylamide.

Now California Attorney General Edmund G Brown Jr said that the lawsuits against Heinz, Frito-Lay, Kettle Foods and Lance had been settled as they agreed to reduce “this carcinogenic chemical” in fried potatoes.

He added: “Other companies should follow this lead and take steps to reduce acrylamide in French fries and potato chips.”

It follows restaurant chains including KFC, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King which last year agreed to post acrylamide warnings at their restaurants and to pay civil penalties and costs.

Then in January, Procter & Gamble agreed to reduce acrylamide in Pringles potato chips by 50 percent so that no warning would be required.

And last month an agreement was reached with Heinz, the manufacturer of Ore-Ida frozen French fries and tater tots, to pay $600,000 in penalties and costs and change its fried potatoes to contain 50 percent less acrylamide.

Preventative measures

California has stringent laws relating to chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity and that consumers should not be exposed to them without giving clear and reasonable warning. But the settlements reflect the growing importance of paying attention to acrylamide for food manufacturers in general, especially given developments in finding solutions.

A global effort has been underway to amass data about acrylamide, with the focus typically being on ways the industry can prevent the carcinogen from being formed.

One growing area of interest is enzymes. Asparaginase enzymes can be employed to turn asparagine into aspartic acid, which prevents acrylamide formation in the Maillard reaction - the process responsible for the brown color and tasty flavor of baked, fried and toasted foods.

DSM and Novozymes have both launched asperaginase enzymes for reducing the formation of acrylamide in baked goods, apparently without affecting the nutritional properties or the browning and taste aspects.

DSM announced last August that it had obtained application intellectual property rights for its PreventASe enzyme from patent holders Frito-Lay and Proctor & Gamble, clearing the way for its use in foods.

DSM told FoodNavigator.com at the time that while it held development intellectual property rights to the enzyme, the application rights for food were held by Frito-Lay and Proctor & Gamble.

Then Novozymes, which also has the applications IP rights, formally launched its enzyme, Acrylaway.

Both DSM and Novozymes have obtained GRAS (generally recognised as safe) status for their enzymes in the US.

Studies are also beginning to emerge that show citric, lactic, tartaric, and hydrochloric acids, and antioxidants, may reduce acrylamide levels.

Meanwhile other research showed that washing and soaking potatoes at home prior to frying them reduces the risk of acylamide formation, shifting the focus away from food manufacturers.

The settlement

A trial date had been scheduled for July 28, but these latest settlements mark the end of the state’s litigation. As a result, Frito-Lay, which is responsible for most of the potato chips sold in California, Kettle Foods, maker of “Kettle Chips,” and Lance, maker of Cape Cod Chips have agreed to reduce acrylamide over a period of three years to 275 parts per billion.

For Frito Lay, this is about a 20 percent reduction, while for Kettle Chips, which contain far more acrylamide, this is an 87 percent reduction in acrylamide.

Most Cape Cod chips are already near the compliance level, but one product, “Cape Cod Robust Russets”, contains over 7,000 parts per billion of acrylamide, and immediately will either carry a warning label on the package or will be removed from the market.

Frito-Lay will pay $1.5 million in penalties and costs, $550,000 will be forgiven if it can reduce acrylamide in its products in half the time required by the settlement. It will pay an additional $2 million if it fails to reduce acrylamide in the required time. Kettle Foods will pay $350,000 in penalties and costs, while Lance will pay $95,000 in fees and costs.

The US FDA is studying the problem of acrylamide in fried potatoes but has not taken formal action.

In Europe, at the end of 2007 the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA) included asparaginase in the new version of its Acrylamide Toolbox, to brings together industry understanding and intervention approaches.