California acrylamide lawsuit 'contrary to public interest'

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Acrylamide Potato

The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) has attacked
California Attorney-General Bill Lockyer's lawsuit against a number
of high-profile food firms as "unfortunate and contrary to the
interest of public health."

The lawsuit, which claims that some firms including McDonald's, Burger King and KFC violate California's Proposition 65 because they do not warn consumers that some of their food items contain acrylamide, is the culmination of a long-running stand-off between health campaigners and food protestors.

The chemical was placed on the California list of potential carcinogens in 1990 after it was confirmed that it was created when starchy foods are baked, roasted, fried or toasted.

But ACSH insists that "acrylamide has not been demonstrated to be a human carcinogen"​.

"In fact, there are many foods besides French fries and potato chips that contain acrylamide naturally,"​ said ACSH nutrition director Dr Ruth Kava.

"Hundreds of foods - from black olives and some baby foods to whole wheat bread and coffee - would require a label if the AG were really trying to live up to the letter of Proposition 65. Indeed, to show the absurdity of the law, ACSH associate director Jeff Stier filed a lawsuit against Whole Foods Market demanding that they comply with Proposition 65 and advise consumers that their organic whole wheat bread also contained acrylamide."

This is a point that the food industry has been keen to stress. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) for example argues that because acrylamide is present in food as a natural byproduct of the cooking process, it has been present in the food supply and safely consumed for years.

"Acrylamide is present in 40 percent of the calories consumed in the average American diet - in foods ranging literally from soup to nuts, and including prunes, olives, baked potatoes as well as chips and fries, crackers, coffee, asparagus, cereals, and many other foods that are part of a normal, healthy diet,"​ said the association in a prepared statement.

"In the present circumstances, we believe that the natural constituents of foods - whether formed by the sun's heat on the growing plant or by the stove's heat on the grown plant - should not be regulated by Proposition 65."

Attorney General Bill Lockyer is unrepentant however.

"In taking this action, I am not telling people to stop eating potato chips or French fries,"​he said.

"I know from personal experience that, while these snacks may not be a necessary part of a healthy diet, they sure taste good. But I, and all consumers, should have the information we need to make informed decisions about the food we eat."

Certainly, pressure has been mounting on food companies to better label their foods ever since scientists in Sweden confirmed the link between starchy foods and acrylamide in 2002. Public health bodies have become increasingly vigilant; 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 food industry insists that the danger to consumers is grossly exaggerated. The ACSH says that since the mere presence of a suspect compound is enough to trigger a Proposition 65 label, the actual amount of such an ingredient could be infinitesimally small, presenting no risk at all to anyone.

"At first glance, it seems that the AG is trying to protect consumers, but his lawsuit could have the opposite effect,"​ said Dr. Gilbert Ross, ACSH medical director.

"The proliferation of warning labels mandated by the suit, if it were thoroughly enforced, would be quite counterproductive. Consumers would become 'warning-weary' and not pay attention to warnings that point to real dangers, such as those on cigarette packages."

Lockyer has made efforts not to appease the food industry. He claims that he intends to work with the defendants in the case to find a way to effectively give consumers information about the acrylamide in their products, while at the same time preventing undue public alarm and unnecessary warning signs concerning foods that contain insignificant amounts of the chemical.

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