Golden, greasy and oh-so good, French fries are the guilty staple of the American diet. But in California, a strict right-to-know law could soon force fast-food restaurants to tell customers that the ubiquitous fries may pack something worse than fat and cholesterol: a potential carcinogen.
Health officials from Europe to Asia have wrestled with how to warn the public ever since Swedish scientists discovered that French fries contained acrylamide, a chemical known to cause cancer in laboratory rats.
Scientists don’t want to stir up a super-sized food scare that might later prove unwarranted. Yet, they are alarmed by tests that are finding acrylamide in hundreds of cooked foods -- from bread and potato chips to almonds and coffee.
The dilemma is heightened in California, where voter-approved Proposition 65 is supposed to trigger public notices on substances “known to the state to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.” State officials deemed acrylamide such a substance in 1990, long before it was found in food. At the time, it was known mainly as a chemical useful in treating sewage water. Concerns about human exposure were minor.
Now that it has been discovered in the food supply, California scientists are reassessing the risks of acrylamide. The attorney general’s office has urged caution, saying too little is known about the dangers to people.
Nonetheless, private attorneys have filed a flurry of lawsuits, alleging that food vendors from McDonald’s and Burger King to KFC and Wendy’s should be warning the public about acrylamide. If the lawyers prevail, California could end up with warnings in countless restaurants and grocery stores saying that French fries and other foods with acrylamide might cause cancer.
“You know the thick paper containers in which they give you fries over the counter, where McDonald’s has the arches and the pictures of Ronald McDonald? To me, the warnings should be right there,” said Raphael Metzger, a Long Beach lawyer who sued McDonald’s and Burger King. The lawsuit is pending in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Since the discovery of acrylamide in food two years ago, researchers around the world have detected it in dozens of dishes. By some estimates, it might be present in as much as 40% of the food people eat. But it is particularly prevalent in starchy foods such as potato chips and French fries, which are so popular that the average American gulps down 28 pounds a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The simple act of cooking, scientists have found, causes acrylamide to develop naturally in carbohydrate-rich foods. Frying, baking, roasting or otherwise cooking at high temperatures releases the organic chemical.
California officials say some warnings might be inevitable.
“We are trying to move responsibly, but we have to work within the requirements of this law,” said Joan E. Denton, director of California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. “Some businesses [that] have acrylamide in their food may be required to notify customers.”
Proposition 65 is the reason California has so many warning signs -- in bars, hotels and parking garages, in the packaging of products such as video game joysticks and fishing rods -- that advise of possible cancer risks.
State and local prosecutors have sued numerous companies to enforce the law. More often, private lawyers have done so. Indeed, the law, which has sparked an estimated 20,000 legal claims, has given birth to a cottage industry of toxic lawsuit experts. There are newsletters and conferences dedicated solely to the law’s arcane details.
The many critics of Proposition 65 predict that the pending decision on acrylamide will finally make a mockery of environmental health labeling, resulting in warnings so common that they will be rendered meaningless. To make that point, a skeptics’ organization, the American Council on Science and Health, announced plans to sue Whole Foods Market, saying the supermarket chain should post warnings because some of the organic bread it sells contains acrylamide.
“It’s absurd to see these warnings at libraries and supermarkets and hardware stores. When you have too much information, and it doesn’t discriminate, it does not inform,” said Henry Miller, a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration official who is a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. “We live in a world of chemicals. So it is not surprising that there are all manner of chemicals -- natural and man-made -- in our bodies.”
David Roe, a co-author of Proposition 65, gently laughs off claims that his creation will lead to warning label chaos in California. On the contrary, he said, history has shown that, when faced with the threat of labels, companies will devise creative ways to clean up their products -- which was the law’s intent.
For example, to avoid the warnings, most china makers removed lead from their tableware when targeted by state authorities. Facing a similar threat, the manufacturer of Preparation H hemorrhoidal medicine found a way to make it without mercury, benefiting not only state residents, but consumers nationwide. French fries, Roe argued, are no different, and their manufacturers would surely find a way to make them more healthful if pressed to do so.
Scientists agree that acrylamide causes cancerous tumors and nervous system damage in laboratory animals that are fed large doses of the chemical. Many believe that it may also be harmful to humans -- which is why acrylamide levels in drinking water are tightly restricted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Now that it has been widely detected in food, some environmental health experts believe that acrylamide might help explain high rates of human cancers suspected to stem from dietary causes. But there is still no clear scientific consensus that acrylamide poses any danger to human beings at the relatively low levels found in food.
A 1999 occupational health study of 8,508 workers who may have been exposed to acrylamide at three industrial plants found slightly higher rates of pancreatic cancer. Several more recent dietary studies comparing cancer rates and consumption of French fries and other acrylamide-heavy foods detected no correlation.
“There is a lot we don’t know about acrylamide, and there are a lot of questions with these risk assessment models,” said Lorelei Mucci, an instructor at the Harvard School of Public Health who wrote some of the dietary studies. “A lot of the information so far comes from animal data. A lot of the animals were exposed to 50,000 micrograms, where people on average are only exposed to about 35 micrograms a day through food.”
Swiss studies have shown that some alternative French-frying techniques produced less acrylamide, giving health officials hope that the problem could be overcome. Food industry representatives doubt that it can be eliminated, however, noting that the very act of heating many foods seems to unleash acrylamide.
“You have to fry French fries. You have to bake breads. In Western cultures, you toast cereals. The Japanese make a kind of tea from toasted barley, and when you toast it, you form acrylamide,” said Henry Chin, vice president of laboratories for the National Food Processors Assn. “In a sense, it is unavoidable to make the food edible.”
FDA researchers have tested more than 700 food products for acrylamide and detected it in a broad range of items, from Kellogg’s Raisin Bran and Taster’s Choice Gourmet Roast instant coffee to fried potatoes from four Popeyes fast-food locations.
The FDA wants to find alternative cooking techniques that lower acrylamide content. At the same time, the agency is trying to assess any health risks. For the time being, it is simply advising the public to “continue eating a balanced diet” and to cook foods thoroughly to kill bacteria. The FDA might conduct a more detailed public awareness campaign in coming years to warn Americans about acrylamide.
“If we decide at the end of the day that there is a substantial risk here, that will suggest significant changes need to be made in the food supply,” said Terry C. Troxell, director of the FDA’s office of plant and dairy foods. “Before we do that, we have to be careful, because that could have an effect on nutrition. Before we do that, we want to make sure we have the data right.”
In California, Proposition 65 has forced environmental health officials to react more swiftly. Before the Swedes found acrylamide in food, the state had already set 0.2 micrograms per day as the exposure point where a public acrylamide notice might be required. Some French fries have 100 times as much.
Michele B. Corash, a lawyer who wrote the ballot arguments against Proposition 65 and has challenged it in several cases since, is defending Burger King in the suit demanding that the fast-food chain put up warnings. She also is representing a coalition of restaurants and grocery chains worried that they too will have to notify customers.
The bigger corporate players, Corash said, would fight vigorously to avoid warnings. But many small businesses would simply post them to avoid long and expensive legal battles, even though they too would find the idea of cancer-causing French fries absurd.
“To say to Joe’s Diner that they have to be prepared to go to trial, to hire expert witnesses, in order to serve a piece of toast with eggs over easy,” Corash said. “That is just goofy.”
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Fries with that?
Cooking foods at high temperatures may produce acrylamide, which causes cancer in lab animals. The risk of small levels found in food remains unclear. The FDA is testing foods for the chemical but cautions that the results should not be used to make food choices.
French fries Parts per billion*
Popeyes 301 to 1,030 Burger King 197 to 369 McDonald’s 193 to 497
Potato snacks Parts per billion*
Pringles Sweet Mesquite BBQ Potato Crisps 2,510 Kettle Chips Lightly Salted Natural Gourmet 1,265 Richfood Shoestring Potatoes 1,243 Good Health Natural Foods Honey Dijon Julienne Potato Stix 1,168 Baked Lay’s Original Crisps 1,096 Terra Blues chips 1,077 Lay’s Classic chips 249 to 549 Good Health Natural Foods Olive Oil chips 385 Ruffle’s Original Potato Chips 292 Lay’s Kettle Cooked Mesquite BBQ Flavored 198
Bakery products Parts per billion*
Sara Lee Plain Mini Bagels 58 Sara Lee Plain Mini Bagels, toasted 343 Pepperidge Farm Original White Bread 36 Pepperidge Farm Original White Bread, toasted 216
Cereals Parts per billion*
Wheatena Toasted Wheat 467 to 1,057 General Mills Cheerios 266 General Mills Lucky Charms 17 Kellogg’s Raisin Bran 156 Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes 52
* Ranges indicate results from more than one sample. Source: Food and Drug Administration. Compiled by Cheryl Brownstein-Santiago