SAN FRANCISCO — California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer sued nine snack- and fast-food giants Friday, saying the law requires them to tell the public that their potato chips and French fries contain a toxic chemical.
In a suit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Lockyer sought a court order compelling the companies to place warnings on their cooked potato products because they contain higher levels of a suspected carcinogen, acrylamide, than other foods.
The defendants include Frito-Lay Inc., KFC Corp., McDonald's Corp., Wendy's International and Procter & Gamble Distributing Co.
"I am not telling people to stop eating potato chips and French fries," Locker said in a statement. "I know from personal experience that, while these snacks may not be a necessary part of a healthy diet, they sure taste good."
But he pointed out that Proposition 65, a ballot initiative passed by voters in 1986, requires businesses of all types to provide the public with "clear and reasonable" warnings before exposing them to potentially dangerous substances.
Representatives of the fast-food industry said Lockyer was unnecessarily alarming the public and unfairly singling out companies named in the suit, since many non-potato food products contain acrylamide.
"It is bound to misinform people if you have a warning on French fries but not on a potato," said Michele Corash, a San Francisco attorney who represents several of the defendants. "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."
Corash represents Wendy's; Burger King Corp.; H.J. Heinz Inc., which makes frozen potato products; Kettle Foods Inc.; and Lance Inc., which owns Cape Cod potato chips. She also represents the Grocery Manufacturer's Assn., the California Retailers Assn. and the California Restaurant Assn.
Lynn Markley, a Frito-Lay spokeswoman, said, "There is no scientific evidence that the presence of acrylamide in food causes illness, and our Frito-Lay snacks are absolutely safe."
Acrylamide -- known to cause cancer in the reproductive organs of laboratory animals exposed to high levels -- has been on the state's list of carcinogens since 1990. However, it was not known to be present in food until 2002, when scientists in Sweden discovered that the substance appeared in starchy foods when cooked at high temperatures.
The lawsuit noted that the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has estimated that consumers of French fries get up to 125 times the amount of acrylamide that requires a warning under state law.
Consumers of potato chips receive as much as 75 times the level requiring a warning.
Representatives of the defendants expressed dismay that Lockyer sued them while the state's environmental health hazard office was still assessing how to regulate acrylamide under Proposition 65.
Alan Hirsch, deputy director of the agency, said it is considering an exemption for chemicals that result from the cooking of natural ingredients, but only if the business has reduced the chemical to the lowest feasible level.
However, he noted that Proposition 65 for years has required businesses to warn the public about the presence of acrylamide.
"The attorney general has the prerogative to enforce it as he sees fit," said Hirsch.
Lockyer noted that the products made by the defendants have not been shown to contain more acrylamide than their competitors' similar products. He said the companies were targeted because they were already named in suits filed by consumer and environmental groups in the last three years.
Under Proposition 65, the attorney general can sue the same defendants as a private party and typically takes over prosecution in such cases.