Turning-Up the Heat on Acrylamide!

A potentially cancer-causing agent used to manufacture certain chemicals, plastics, and dyes has now been found to be a natural by-product of cooking certain foods. The Food and Drug Administration is taking a closer look at this white, odorless chemical, acrylamide, to determine how much of it occurs in foods and whether it could pose a health risk to consumers.

Several years ago researchers in Sweden discovered cooking at high temperatures could create acrylamide in many types of foods, particularly starchy foods such as french fries, potato chips, bread, rice, and processed cereals.

Scientists know that acrylamide causes cancer in laboratory rats. They also know contact with large quantities of acrylamide can cause nerve damage in humans. But no one knows whether the tiny amounts of acrylamide in cooked foods can cause cancer or have any other harmful effects when ingested by people. "As soon as we heard about this problem, we took action and laid out a solid plan to learn more about acrylamide and to reduce exposure to it," says Terry Troxell, Ph.D., director of the FDA's Office of Plant and Dairy Foods and Beverages.

The FDA's draft action plan for Acrylamide in food was in 2002 at the the first of a series of public meetings held to get feedback and to provide updates on FDA activities related to Acrylamide. With the goal to prevent or reduce the potential risk of acrylamide in foods to the greatest extent feasible, the FDA's plan calls for developing laboratory methods to measure acrylamide and surveying the levels of acrylamide in foods. In addition, FDA scientists will study how acrylamide is formed so that the agency can identify ways to reduce it. "We really want to help industry understand what they might be able to do to reduce the formation of acrylamide," says Richard Canady, Ph.D., a toxicologist in the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

What We Know So Far . . . Following the Swedish researchers' identification of acrylamide in foods, researchers in other countries, including Norway, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Canada, and the United States, analyzed samples of foods and came up with similar findings. The FDA developed its own method to measure levels of acrylamide in foods and has tested more than 300 food items.

Studies by the FDA and others found a wide variation in the levels of acrylamide among different types of foods and even different brands. "Much more testing is needed to understand the scope of occurrence of acrylamide in food," says Troxell. The FDA's plan calls for testing about 1,500 more samples over the next year, and more testing may be added based on the findings.

Acrylamide was not found in uncooked or boiled food--studies indicate that it appears to form during certain high-temperature (greater than 250 F) cooking processes, such as frying and baking, and that levels of acrylamide increase with heating time. Home-cooked foods, as well as pre-cooked, packaged and processed foods, have been found to contain acrylamide.

Acrylamide levels in 39 samples of potato chips ranged from less than 1.4 micrograms to 100 micrograms per ounce, according to a group of international food safety experts who met in Geneva Switzerlan to discuss the public health impact of acrylamide in foods.

This meeting of experts, including FDA scientists, was hosted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The FAO and WHO reported that the short-term dietary intake of acrylamide was found to be about 50 micrograms per day for the average adult, an amount significantly below that known to cause nerve damage in laboratory animals.

The FAO and WHO experts concluded more research and information was needed on acrylamide in food, but added that the substance was a "major concern." Based on high-dose experiments in animals, acrylamide is classified as a potential human carcinogen, as well as a genotoxicant, a substance that can mutate and damage genetic material.

Advice for Consumers . . . Based on the current knowledge about acrylamide, the FDA has re-emphasized its traditional advice to eat a balanced diet, choosing a variety of foods that are low in fat and rich in high-fiber grains, fruits, and vegetables. "As more information becomes available, we will consider additional messages, for example, recommendations related to cooking," says Troxell.

The FAO and WHO advise consumers that food should not be cooked excessively--for too long or at too high a temperature. They also recommend cooking all food thoroughly, particularly meat and meat products, to destroy foodborne pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses.

The FDA reinforces that consumers should not overreact. "It's a bigger risk if you don't cook your food thoroughly and consume pathogens," says Troxell. It's also a nutritional risk to avoid foods rich in fiber such as cereals and whole-grain products.

Educating consumers will be an important part of the FDA's acrylamide action plan. "Once we have enough information, we want to help consumers understand the potential risks for acrylamide, how it gets into food, and what they can do to avoid it," says Canady.

Cooperative Research . . . There is a high level of cooperation and information-sharing among the FDA, other U.S. and international government agencies, research institutions, academia, and industry, says Canady. And it's starting to pay off. Five different labs throughout the world have announced that they discovered what may be a primary mechanism of how acrylamide can be formed in food. They identified a high-temperature reaction of two compounds found in potatoes and other carbohydrates: glucose (a sugar) and asparagine (an amino acid).

Several years ago the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and the National Center for Food Safety and Technology held a workshop titled "Acrylamide in Food: Scientific Issues, Uncertainties, and Research Strategies." Intended to determine acrylamide research needs and facilitate coordination and collaboration among scientists worldwide, the workshop looked at all the components of acrylamide and the current research being done.

"People are working very hard in the agency and around the world to understand acrylamide levels and see why it's formed," adds Troxell. "Once we understand what causes it, we can better address how to reduce Acrylamide and its associated cancer risk in humansit."

Article Written by By L. Bren

Attorney General Lockyer Files Lawsuit to Require Consumer Warnings About Cancer-Causing Chemical in Potato Chips and French Fries
Action Against Nine Firms Says Warnings on Acrylamide Required by Proposition 65

(LOS ANGELES) – Attorney General Bill Lockyer today filed suit against 9 US manufacturers of potato chips and french fries, seeking a court order that will require the firms to warn consumers that some of their food products contain acrylamide, a chemical known by the state to cause cancer.

"In taking this action, I am not telling people to stop eating potato chips or french fries," said Lockyer. "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. Proposition 65 requires companies to tell us when we're exposed to potentially dangerous toxins in our food. The law benefits us all, and as Attorney General, I have a duty to enforce it."

Filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Lockyer's complaint alleges the companies have violated Proposition 65, a landmark ballot initiative enacted by voters in 1986. The law requires businesses to provide "clear and reasonable" warnings before exposing people to known carcinogens or reproductive toxins. The defendants in the lawsuit are:

Burger King Corporation, french fries
Cape Cod Potato Chips, Inc./Lance, Inc. (parent company), Cape Cod potato chips
Frito-Lay, Inc./PepsiCo, Inc., Lay's potato chips/Lay's baked potato chips
H.J. Heinz, Inc., Ore-Ida frozen potato products
Kettle Foods, Inc., Kettle Chips
KFC Corporation, KFC Potato Wedges
McDonald's Corporation, french fries
Procter & Gamble Distributing Co./Procter & Gamble Manufacturing Co., Pringles
Wendy's International, Inc., french fries

Acrylamide is a by-product created by the reaction of chemicals in food and high heat, acrylamide has been found at low levels in a wide variety of foods. The lawsuit asks the court to require warnings on potato chips and french fries because they have higher levels of acrylamide than other foods.

Acrylamide has long been known to exist in industrial products, and since 1990 has been on the Proposition 65 list of carcinogens. Prior to 2002, however, acrylamide was not known to be present in food. But later scientists in Sweden made the startling finding that certain starchy foods cooked in high heat contain acrylamide.

Since that discovery, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) have studied the issue. OEHHA has gathered data and published a report which includes estimates of acrylamide levels for 40 foods. Given that assessment, it is estimated that consumers of french fries receive up to 125 times the amount of acrylamide that requires a warning under current regulations, while consumers of potato chips receive as much as 75 times the level requiring a warning. The report is available online at www.oehha.ca.gov/prop65/acrylamideqa.html .

Additionally, OEHHA has initiated formal rulemaking proceedings to determine the extent to which OEHHA believes warnings should be required on food products containing acrylamide. Lockyer said legal action is necessary to ensure appropriate warnings are provided on products containing particularly high levels of acrylamide.

Lockyer said 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.

The Attorney General's action is not the first to seek consumer warnings for these foods. A private suit filed in 2002 by the Committee for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) named McDonald's and Burger King as defendants, and is pending in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Another set of two private suits filed by Environmental World Watch, Inc. (EWW) identified a number of the same Acrylamide lawsuit defendants as the Attorney General's suit. Additional actions were filed later by the Environmental Law Foundation. The Attorney General will ask that all pending suits be assigned to the same judge so they may proceed in the most efficient way.

Since the initial research of acrylamide, numerous tests have been conducted on the products in this case and confirm that they are subject to Proposition 65 warning requirements. Lockyer noted that the potato chips and french fries made by the defendants in his lawsuit have not been shown to contain more Acrylamide than their competitors' products. The firms were named as defendants, he explained, because they were the companies targeted in the actions filed by EWW, ELF and CERT.

Under Proposition 65, a private party intending to file a lawsuit must first notify the Attorney General's Office. The Attorney General may sue the same defendants. If the Attorney General's Office decides to file a lawsuit, the office typically takes over prosecution of the case against those defendants.

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