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Sellers of French Fries May Face Suits

Food: Two California environmental groups plan to target companies that fail to warn of a suspected carcinogen.

July 03, 2002|MELINDA FULMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two California environmental groups have notified the state attorney general's office of their intent to sue the nation's top sellers of French fries under California's Proposition 65, which requires manufacturers to warn consumers of toxic chemicals in their products.

They hope their action will prompt the state to probe the matter and possibly file its own suit, an action the state attorney general's office said it is considering.

The chemical they're seeking a warning for is acrylamide, a suspected carcinogen. A recent Swedish government study found high levels of the chemical in fatty starchy foods cooked at high temperatures, such as French fries.

In one test, McDonald's French fries were found to contain 300 times the amount of acrylamide allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency for a glass of water.

The two groups hope to use the 1986 state law to force McDonald's and Burger King to put a warning on their packaging in California, or reformulate their fries.

One of the two groups--Southern California-based Environmental World Watch--also is seeking similar action from grocery manufacturers whose products have been found to contain high levels of acrylamide.

"We hope this is going to erupt into a full-scale investigation on the part of the food industry" to determine the source of the carcinogen, said Robert J. Mandell, a Northridge attorney representing Environmental World Watch.

Acrylamide is on the state's list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. Scientists have generally not associated it with food, but as a water treatment, an ingredient in packaging and as a byproduct of cigarette smoke.

The state's listing does not call acrylamide a human carcinogen, but it is on the list of chemicals that require a consumer warning on packaging, or a warning in the stores and restaurants where products containing it are sold, said Ed Weil, a deputy attorney general based in Oakland.

Scientists at a World Health Organization meeting last week in Geneva called the April discovery of acrylamide in food a "major concern." But they urged more research and did not caution people to change their diets.

The Food and Drug Administration has not issued any warnings on acrylamide. But it has launched a new round of research to determine which foods contain high levels of the suspected carcinogen and how it is formed.

Both Environmental World Watch and a six-member coalition of environmentalists and academics have given the California attorney general's office 60-day notice of their intent to file suit, a move that typically lets the office decide if it wants to take action.

Weil said the state is considering the matter and will make an announcement in coming weeks.

"We've been looking at it since the story first broke," Weil said.

A spokesman for Burger King said the suits don't "make sense" because the discovery of acrylamide in food is so new.

"There's a lot that still needs to be understood about the effects of these levels [of acrylamide]," said Burger King's Rob Doughty.

Likewise, McDonald's executives said the suit was premature.

In a statement, the company called the suit "inappropriate" and said that "flooding" Californians with labels related to all baked and fried foods would "undermine the purpose of Prop. 65 by devaluing labeling in general."

Environmental attorneys argue that everyone, even food companies, must follow state regulations.

"If your product contains a carcinogen and you know that it contains this carcinogen, you are obligated under California law to warn the consumer," Mandell said. "It's as simple as that."

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