A California environmental group filed notices Thursday that it planned to sue food manufacturers to require them to put warnings on potato chips, which contain high amounts of a cancer-causing chemical formed when starchy foods are cooked at high temperatures.
The state's anti-toxics law, Proposition 65, requires companies to warn consumers about products containing chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects.
The Environmental Law Foundation reported Thursday that it tested a dozen types of potato chips, produced by Lay's, Kettle Chips, Cape Cod and Pringles, and that all of them contained excessive levels of acrylamide. For every product tested, a 1-ounce serving eaten daily exceeded levels that require a cancer warning under Proposition 65, the group reported.
One variety, Cape Cod Robust Russet, contained 6.5 parts per million, which is 910 times more acrylamide than the level that the state's environmental health agency has determined poses an unacceptable risk, the report says. That is almost twice as much as the second-highest level, reported for Kettle Chips Lightly Salted.
The lowest acrylamide levels among the 12 were found in Lay's Light KC Masterpiece BBQ chips, but they still contained 38 times the amount that the state considers acceptable.
Frito-Lay representatives declined to comment on the report or the legal notices because they had not yet seen them. But they issued a statement saying that their products meet all safety standards and that "there is no scientific evidence that the presence of acrylamide in food causes illness." Representatives of Cape Cod Potato Chip Co. did not return phone calls Thursday.
Acrylamide is a byproduct of cooking, particularly when foods are fried, baked or roasted at high temperatures. It is not an additive.
The chemical, which causes cancer in the reproductive organs of lab animals exposed to high levels, has been on the state's list of compounds known to cause cancer since 1990, but it wasn't discovered in foods until 2002.
James Wheaton, president of the Oakland-based Environmental Law Foundation, said there was "no excuse" for the lack of warning labels on potato chip bags or signs in the stores that sell them.
Many processed foods contain acrylamide, Wheaton said, but "the problem, as we see it, is with foods that have exceptionally high levels."
Under Proposition 65, which was approved by California voters in 1986, citizens groups can file a notice with state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer alleging that a company has failed to warn about exposure to a chemical in a product. Lockyer then has 60 days to decide whether to take the case on behalf of the people of California. If he refuses, then the group -- or any other citizen or group -- can sue the manufacturer.
Teresa Schilling, a spokeswoman for Lockyer's office, said lawyers there had not yet seen the acrylamide notice.
California environmental groups filed similar notices against Burger King and McDonald's in 2002 in an attempt to require warnings on French fries. That case has been stayed by a Superior Court judge pending a decision from the state's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment on rules related to acrylamide.
The agency is proposing to raise the level of acrylamide that would require warnings. The amounts found in chips, however, would still exceed the proposed new levels, Wheaton said.
The agency also has been debating a proposal by food industries to exempt foods that contain chemicals formed solely from naturally occurring substances during cooking. A workshop was held last month, and comments from the public will be accepted through June 24. The level of a chemical that triggers warnings in California is based on the amount that could cause, over a lifetime of exposure, more than one cancer among every 100,000 people exposed.
Some of the chips tested pose a risk of one or two cancers per 1,000 people, which "everyone agrees is unacceptable," said Alise Capel, research director of the Environmental Law Foundation.
Potato chip manufacturers can reduce acrylamide levels by changing how the chips are processed, such as cooking them at lower temperatures, reducing sugar content or switching to different cooking oils or types of potatoes, Capel said.
Corn chips, popcorn, tortilla chips and other snacks also contain acrylamide but not at levels as high as French fries and potato chips, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
The FDA is investigating acrylamide in various foods, including bread, cereal and coffee, but has not issued any warnings.