World Alert over cancer chemical in cooked food
A worldwide alert was issued on May 17, 2002 after scientists announced that much of the food we eat contains a chemical known to cause cancer, damage the
nervous system and affect fertility. The chemical is acrylamide, it occurs in fried, baked and processed foods ranging from biscuits, bread and crisps to chips and possibly meat. Foods examined include Kellogg's Rice Krispies, Pringles crisps, and Fried potatoes. The scientists believe it also occurs in roasted, grilled and barbecued food.
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World alert over cancer chemical in cooked food
By Robert Uhlig, Food Correspondent
A worldwide alert was issued last night after scientists announced that much
of the food we eat contains a chemical known to cause cancer, damage the
nervous system and affect fertility.
The Food Standards Agency said that its scientists had confirmed recent
Swedish findings that "significant levels" of acrylamide occurs in fried,
baked and processed foods ranging from biscuits, bread and crisps to chips
and possibly meat.
The finding has the potential to change the way certain types of food are
viewed, in much the same way that studies in the 1960s changed perception of
the health risks of smoking.
Acrylamide causes gene mutations leading to a range of cancers in rats,
including breast cancer, uterine cancer and tumours in the adrenal glands and
the internal lining of the scrotum.
Among the products tested in the British study - some of which had levels of
acrylamide 1,280 times higher than international safety limits - were chipped
and fried supermarket potatoes, Walkers crisps, Ryvita crackers, Kellogg's
Rice Crispies and Pringles crisps.
The results have so alarmed health experts that they have called
international meetings to discuss what should be done.
The British and Swedish findings were presented yesterday to the Scientific
Committee on Food which advises the European Commission on food safety.
World Health Organisation experts will discuss the research at a special
meeting in Geneva next month. It is expected to recommend further studies.
According to the findings, acrylamide forms naturally in food when it is
fried or baked. The scientists believe it also occurs in roasted, grilled and
As a genotoxic carcinogen, acrylamide is classified as a "probable"
cancer-causing chemical with no safe dose.
Diane Benford, a toxicologist at the FSA, said: "We cannot define a safe
level. We have to assume that at any level of exposure there may be some
risk, albeit very small."
With 30 to 40 per cent of cancers caused by diet, Dr Benford said that it was
too early to say whether acrylamide was one of the major causes of cancer.
Dr Benford said: "We are not advising any changes of diet or cooking
procedures because we do not know enough yet."
Steve Wearne, head of contaminants at the FSA, said: "It's about any food
that's cooked this way. It appears that any of these cooking processes in
food production can lead to acrylamide forming. It's not clear what the
factors are that lead to acrylamide formation; it may be due to the type of
cooking, temperature, or chemical composition of the food, or other factors."
However, the scientists have established that frying chips until they are
overcooked generates more acrylamide than cooking them according to
instructions on the packet.
European rules on the amount of acrylamide allowed in food packaging allow no
more than 10 parts per billion. Ross frying chips were found to contain 200
ppb as sold - 20 times the permitted level - and 3,500 ppb when cooked.
However, when overcooked, they contained 12,800 ppb - 1,280 times the
Sainsbury's baking potatoes contained less than the permitted 10 ppb when raw
or boiled, but 310 ppb when chipped and fried.
Walker's ready-salted crisps contained 1,270 ppb; Dark Wholemeal Rye Ryvita
contained up to 4,000 ppb; Kellogg's Rice Crispies contained 110 ppb and
Pringles original crisps contained 1,480 ppb.
The Consumers' Association described the findings as a "worrying development".
Sue Davies, principal policy adviser, said: "More research into the
implications of this study need to be carried out."
The British Retail Consortium and the Food and Drink Federation issued a
joint statement saying they shared the FSA's concern and welcomed its advice.
The statement added: "How acrylamide is produced during processing and
cooking is not known. Manufacturers and retailers are committed to working
with the agency - and internationally - to establish the significance of
these findings for public health and to reduce consumers' exposure."
A Sainsbury's spokesman said: "We can reassure customers that advice from the
Food Standards Agency is that consumers should not change their dietary
habits. Food safety is of paramount importance to us and we will continue to
follow FSA advice."
Various surveys have shown that we eat less fried food now than previously,
although about half of us cook with oil more than once a week.
How serious is the latest food scare?
FSA Acrylamide Study: your questions answered [17 May '02] - Food Standards
Joint BRC/FDF statement on Acrylamide [17 May '02] - British Retail
Food and Drink Federation
Which Online - Consumers' Association
Scientific Committee on Food - Europa
Acrylamide - National Toxicology Program
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