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Chips and Fries Carcinogen to be Reduced Over Three Years

Aug 5, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Did you know that some of your favorite potato chips and French fry snacks contain cancer-causing chemicals?  In a settlement announced late last week by the California state attorney general’s office, four food firms have agreed to lower levels of the toxic substance and pay a combined $3 million in fines.  The state of California sued H.J. Heinz Co., Frito-Lay, Kettle Foods Inc., and Lance Inc. in 2005, alleging all four violated a state requirement that companies post warning labels on carcinogen-containing products.

According to officials, the four companies avoided trial by agreeing to pay the fines and reduce acrylamide levels in their products; the acrylamide reduction will occur over three years. 
"Other companies should follow this lead," Attorney General Jerry Brown said, calling the settlements "a victory for public health."  In compliance with settlement terms, Frito-Lay, which is owned by PepsiCo Inc. and produces most of the chips sold in California, will pay $1.5 million; Kettle Foods will pay $350,000; Heinz, maker of frozen fries and tater tots, agreed to pay $600,000; and Lance will pay $95,000.  In 2005, California sued McDonald's Corporation; Wendy's International Inc.; Burger King Corporation; KFC, a subsidiary of Yum Brands Inc.; and Procter & Gamble Company over acrylamide levels. Those lawsuits were settled after the companies agreed to either properly label their products or lower acrylamide levels.

Acrylamide
is found mainly in foods made from plants and is a chemical that forms naturally when starchy foods, such as potato products, are exposed to high temperature cooking processes such as baking, roasting, or frying; boiling and steaming do not typically form acrylamide.  Acrylamide is more likely to accumulate when cooking is done over longer periods or higher temperatures.  Acrylamide is also found in grain products and coffee.  Food-rendered acrylamide forms from sugars and an amino acid—asparagine—that are naturally present in foods and does not originate from packaging or the environment.  Acrylamide also does not form, or forms at lower levels, in dairy, meat, and fish products.  Studies confirm acrylamide causes cancer in lab animals and nerve damage to those exposed to high levels of the chemical, which also has industrial uses in products such as plastics, grouts, water treatment products, and cosmetics.  Acrylamide is also found in cigarette smoke.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is researching whether acrylamide in food poses a health risk.  "Everybody's trying to figure out how to lower levels (of acrylamide) without significantly, adversely affecting taste," said an attorney for Lance, which produces Cape Cod chips.  The attorney said modified snacks will be available nationwide.

The attorney general's office said acrylamide levels in most Cape Cod chips are near the compliance level as defined by the settlement; Cape Cod Robust Russets contain 25 times the acceptable amount, said Brown.  Robust Russets chips are no longer being sold according to a Cape Cod attorney.

The FDA has not yet determined the exact public health impact, if any, of much lower acrylamide levels in foods.


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