Concerns over the presence of acrylamide in processed foods have flared up again after the US food watchdog detects levels of this carcinogenic chemical in a new batch of foods. The industry risks being bruised.
The US study of 740 food samples released yesterday by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) adds black olives, teething biscuits and prune juice to the growing list of food products containing levels of acrylamide.
"The new data are consistent with previous findings showing higher levels of acrylamide in potato-based and other carbohydrate-rich products processed at high temperatures and lower levels of acrylamide in dairy foods and infant formulas," said the FDA in a statement.
In April 2002 scientists at the Swedish Food Administration raised the alarm on acrylamide, reporting on the presence of high levels of this 'probable human carcinogen' in certain types of food processed at high temperatures. Since then, acrylamide has been found in a range of cooked and heat-processed foods in other countries, including The Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the US.
But its formation in food remains unclear. Teams of scientists, both government and industry-funded, in the western world are currently working to learn more about how acrylamide is formed in foods.
"It appears to be produced naturally in some foods that have been cooked or processed at high temperature and the levels appear to increase with the duration of heating. Further research is needed to explain why acrylamide forms in food as well as the conditions that promote or reduce its presence in food," writes the World Health Organisation (WHO), currently co-ordinating a global network of research into acrylamide that involves both national governments, independent laboratories and the food industry.
This is one of those rare occasions when all the major food companies are working together, said Prof. Don Moltram from the University of Reading at the Food Ingredients Europe (FiE) exhibition in November last year, speaking at a conference he gave on acrylamide.
The presence of acrylamide in foods is a potentially explosive issue that must be handled with caution. Immediate action by WHO last year, convening a meeting of governments and stakeholders, bears this out, as well as ongoing activities in the science arena.
Consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest, is not surprisingly lobbying for limits on acrylamide in food, meanwhile the US food industry, for right or wrong, remains dogmatic. Rhona Applebaum, executive vice president of the $500 billion food industry body the National Food Processors Association argued yesterday that levels would not be necessary.
"FDA's research on acrylamide levels in various foods is neither a warning to consumers nor a finding of risk associated with any particular foods or individual brands," she said in a statement.
In Europe risk assessors from the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) have repeated their call made last year for the levels of acrylamide in foods to be reduced as far and as quickly as possible. The food watchdog has refused to give the all clear. The voice of the European food industry, Brussels-based Confederation of the EU food and drink industries (CIAA), has voiced its ongoing support for further research into the potential formation of the carcinogen acrylamide in fried foods.