California’s crusading Attorney General, Bill Lockyer, has sued nine fast food chains and potato chip manufactures pursuant to that state’s law requiring companies to warn consumers if a product contains a potentially dangerous substance. Known carcinogens would fall into that category.
Lockyer claims that the law applies to potato chips and fries since they may cause cancer due to the presence of the chemical acrylamide which has been on California’s list of carcinogens since 1990 and has been associated with cancer of reproductive organs in laboratory animals exposed to high levels.
Acrylamide was initially considered an industrial agent and was used both in food packaging and to treat sewage. The substance was discovered in food in 2002 by Swedish scientists who identified it in starchy foods cooked at high temperatures.
Recent research has supported a connection between fried potatoes and cancer in a study earlier this month suggesting women who ate a lot of French fries as children had an increased risk of developing cancer later in life.
Lockyer claims that according to proposition 65 (an initiative passed by voters in 1986 to insure proper warnings on dangerous substances) companies including Burger King Corporation, Cape Cod Potato Chips, Inc., Lance, Inc., Frito-Lay, Inc., Ore-Ida frozen potato products, KFC Corporation, McDonald’s Corporation, and Wendy’s International, Inc. should be required to place warning labels on their food products alerting consumers to potentially harmful levels of acrylamide.
Although Lockyer stated: "I am not telling people to stop eating potato chips and French fries. I know from personal experience that, while these snacks may not be a necessary part of a healthy diet, they sure taste good."
The food industry has expressed its unhappiness concerning the warnings and believes the proposed labels will cause unnecessary alarm and concern among consumers.
The attorney for several of the defendants said: "No one buys a potato to eat it raw. People will think if they make [French fries] on their own they will not have problems." A spokeswoman for Frito-Lay said the snacks are absolutely safe.
Lockyer argues that after the 2002 acrylamide reports, the products involved in the case were subjected to many tests to establish that they were subject to a proposition 65 warning label.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently determining the presence of the chemical in food, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has estimated French fries have as much as 125 times the amount of acrylamide for which a warning is required under state law. Consumers of potato chips receive as much as 75 times the level requiring a warning.
Lockyer’s case follows several others that sought to take action against these foods. In 2002 the Committee for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) filed a private suit against McDonald’s and Burger King. Currently it is pending in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Two additional private suits were filed on August 3, 2005 by Environmental World Watch, Inc. (EWW) and by the Environmental Law Foundation on August 25 against the same companies targeted by Lockyer.