food safety

Did Food Industry Lobbying Force the EU to Drop Regulation of This Cancer-Linked Chemical?

A proposed law to regulate the use of acrylamide—a potentially carcinogenic chemical found in fried, starchy foods—has been watered down following objections from industry bodies, leaked documents suggest.

by Phoebe Hurst
27 October 2016, 1:39pm

Photo via Flickr user stu_spivak

Late last year, just as we were recovering from the shock of hearing that bacon sarnies could be as bad for us as cigarettes, breakfast fans of the world were dealt another blow. A study from the British Food Standards Agency (FSA) claimed that well-done toast could also be carcinogenic.

According to the FSA research, burnt toast, fried potatoes, and chips were all high in acrylamide, a chemical linked to cancer that's produced when bread or potatoes are cooked above 120 degrees Celsius, due to a reaction that occurs between amino acids, sugar, and water.

READ MORE: Sorry Everyone, Bacon Could Be as Bad For You as Cigarettes

After testing bread and potato dishes at 50 households and comparing levels of acrylamide, the FSA concluded that "at the levels we are exposed to from food, acrylamide could be increasing the risk of cancer."

It wasn't the first time concerns had been raised over the link between acrylamide and cancer, either. Last year, the European Safety Authority found that acrylamide "potentially increases the risk of developing cancer in consumers of all ages."

So, if acrylamide is linked to cancer, why did the European commission drop plans to limit its use in the food industry?

As the Guardian reports, it could be down to lobbying from within the industry.

Leaked documents obtained by the newspaper show "undue influence" from food industry associations over EU lawmakers.

Currently, EU law on reducing the amount of acrylamide in food, which can be done by altering ingredients and storage practices, is confined to voluntary codes.

This year, the EU commission had been expected to firm up these practices into public health regulations.

According to a draft law produced in June, the food industry would be asked to "provide evidence of regular testing of their products to ensure that the application of the code of practice is effective in keeping acrylamide levels as low as reasonably achievable and at least below the indicative levels."

However, when the paper was shared with FoodDrinkEurope, an association that claims to "represent the European food and drink industry, the largest manufacturing sector in the EU," it immediately complained to the European commission. In a letter seen by the Guardian, FoodDrinkEurope stated that "the terminology 'at least below the indicative value' could be interpreted as meaning that the indicative values are maximum limits."

In a second draft of the law, the offending line had been removed.

Nusa Urbancic of ChangingMarkets.org, an organisation that "works to shift market share away from unsustainable products," told the newspaper: "These leaked documents show that the industry is having an undue influence over the process and contents of this proposal. Their call for indicative values for different food groups clearly hasn't worked so far, as acrylamide levels are as high as ever, according to Efsa data. Ambitious maximum limits are needed to protect consumers."

However Camille Perrin from European consumer organisation, BEUC said that the original EU proposal on acrylamide levels may have been misinterpreted.

READ MORE: Why Toast Could Be Even Worse for You Than Bacon

She told the Guardian: "From a legal perspective the wording might not have made a big difference as these values are not meant to be legal limits. While we would like to see binding limits, I'm not sure that what was being proposed would have been enough to make these values legal values."

Campaigners are calling for the food industry to take the threat of acrylamide more seriously. More than 150,000 people have already signed a petition calling for the EU to set legally binding acrylamide limits.

In the meantime, maybe we'll lower the dials on our toaster.