Commissioners are trying to untangle a messy situation regarding rules for the food contaminant – and neither industry nor health campaigners are happy.
The European Commission wants to introduce new regulations to reduce levels of acrylamide in certain foods. The food industry has been pretty happy with the proposals so far, but critics have said they are “meaningless” and may even fail to comply with some facets of EU law. It’s turning into a bit of a bunfight and foodservice companies will need to watch things closely given the foods involved. Here’s the story so far.
What is it?
Acrylamide is a contaminant that’s generated when the sugar and amino acids in starchy foods transform through the Maillard reaction during heating. The changes enhance the taste of the cooked food and will often give it a brownish colour. Roast or bake and you’ll get acrylamide forming, but it’s frying that contributes most to consumer exposure to the substance.
Is it a problem?
Humans have seemingly been exposed to acrylamide since learning to toast bread, fry potatoes and roast coffee beans. However, studies in Sweden in 2002 showed that high levels of acrylamide formed when frying or baking potatoes and cereals. There were also studies on animals suggesting that the contaminant has the potential to cause cancer in humans.
What’s the official advice?
Last year, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published an updated opinion on the issue; this confirmed its previous evaluations that acrylamide in food “potentially increases the risk of developing cancer for consumers in all age groups”. EFSA’s little cousin, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), has funded several research projects and surveys on the substances, but its website states that it’s not yet clear what the risks are from acrylamide in food. Of course, that doesn’t diminish the responsibility of food producers and regulatory bodies to properly investigate and understand the consequences of exposure.
Which is why there’s talk of new regulations, right?
Exactly. The food industry says levels are being lowered all the time through voluntary codes of practice – and there is evidence to show that this is the case. On the flipside, there’s concern that levels are not falling fast enough or far enough. The European Commission therefore decided to formalise the approach with new rules.
What’s the deal with the new law, then?
The FSA website explains that the proposal is to place the new regulation under article 4 of regulation 852/2004 on the hygiene of foodstuffs. This will give food businesses a mandate to take account of strict new industry codes of practice for mitigating acrylamide formation as part of their food safety management systems.
Sounds good. So why are campaigners grumbling?
For a start the proposals refer only to “indicative values”, so the onus is on industry to follow codes of practice that have already been developed for a range of products, including coffee, baby foods and potato-based goods such as crisps and french fries. But Safe Food Advocacy Europe and other consumer groups say this “soft approach” has been in place for almost a decade now and “has failed to reduce acrylamide levels in food”. New data released in November further supports their case: about 12% of 25,000 samples sent to EFSA between 2007 and 2014 contained more acrylamide than the indicative levels set by the EU.
What’s the industry’s response?
It has a different view, of course, and points to an analysis of 40,000 samples of fresh sliced potato crisps from 20 European countries which found that mean levels of acrylamide fell 53% between 2002 and 2011. A study in the UK last year also showed four of the five varieties of potatoes tested had levels of acrylamide lower than the 1,000μg/kg value for potato chips. But that leads us neatly to another of the campaigners’ concerns.
The indicative values are not low enough. Denmark is actually looking to lower the levels that its food industry works to because the EU guidelines – the same ones being used in the new regulation – don’t protect consumers enough. Ready-to-eat french fries should have levels of no more than 600μg/ kg for example but Denmark says it should be 550μg/kg. In potato crisps the EU’s marker is 1,000μg/kg but Denmark says it should be 750μg/kg. Campaigners also want the targets to be legally binding.
What does industry say?
The likes of FoodDrinkEurope maintain that maximum levels won’t work – industry will progress to them and look to go no further, so their argument goes. The EU health commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, seems to agree and the fact he is seemingly siding with industry hasn’t gone unnoticed. Campaigners have argued that the commission is a little too close to industry for comfort on this one and has watered down proposals after intense lobbying. Let’s not forget that cutting acrylamide will affect costs, cooking and processing practices and taste.
It all seems a bit of a mess, then?
Indeed. This was never going to be an easy regulation for the commission (something that industry and campaigners do agree on) but now it’s in the kitchen it has to stay and stand the heat. In November the latest draft was circulated. It contained additional requirements on testing and monitoring performance at member state level. There’s also the threat that maximum levels will be set if there’s not enough progress. This wasn’t enough to satisfy consumer health groups.
What’s the latest?
Campaigners have teamed up with law firm ClientEarth and sent a(nother) letter to Andriukaitis, this time pointing out what they see as major legal flaws with the draft proposals. They claim the regulation, as it stands, doesn’t necessarily comply with “higher ranking law” and the commission has even got the legal basis wrong (it has joined the new regulation to laws pertaining to the hygiene of food when it should be within contaminants laws, they warn). The threat is clear: if the proposals don’t change then we’ll challenge you in court – and we reckon we’ll win.
So what happens next?
There’s a long way to go but next up is a vote on the proposals in January. Until then campaigners will keep campaigning, industry will keep lobbying and the European Commission will be left wondering why it decided to pick up this hot potato in the first place.