The state's anti-toxics law, Proposition 65, requires companies to warn consumers about products containing chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects. Acrylamide, a carcinogen that is created when starchy foods are baked, roasted, fried or toasted, was placed on the list in 1990.
But according to the Environmental Law Foundation (ELF), dozens of potato chips contain excessive levels of acrylamide without any warning whatsoever. For every product the pressure group tested, a one-ounce serving eaten daily exceeded levels that require a cancer warning under Proposition 65.
The group claims that one variety, Cape Cod Robust Russet, contained 6.5 parts per million, which is 910 times more acrylamide than the level that the state's environmental health agency has determined poses an unacceptable risk. That, says the ELF, is almost twice as much as the second-highest level, reported for Kettle Chips Lightly Salted.
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.
"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.
"The food industry is terrified about consumer reaction. But there is a precedent. Seafood has warnings about mercury levels, and this hasn't led to drastic decline."
Indeed James Wheaton, president of the Oakland-based ELF, told the LA Times that there was "no excuse" for the lack of warning labels on potato chip bags. Many processed foods contain acrylamide, Wheaton said, but "the problem, as we see it, is with foods that have exceptionally high levels."
Corn chips, popcorn, tortilla chips and other snacks also contain acrylamide but not at levels as high as French fries and potato chips, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The FDA is investigating acrylamide in various foods, including bread, cereal and coffee, but has not issued any warnings. A list from March 2004 shows the acrylamide levels - in parts per billion - 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.