Two new surveys have found high levels of acrylamide, a known carcinogen, in UK-made baby biscuits and Belgium’s favourite fast food.
Acrylamide is a compound that typically forms in food products such as potato chips, bread, biscuits, and coffee, during high-temperature processing (above 120°), including frying, baking, and roasting [See background].
According to a study commissioned by the Changing Markets Foundation, 10% of biscuits marketed to infants and children in the UK have high levels of acrylamide.
The Changing Markets Foundation and NGO SumOfUs, looked at 48 types of biscuits, including well-known brands like Little Dish and Ella’s Kitchen.
The highest acrylamide levels were found in Little Dish biscuits, with levels almost 5 times higher than the European benchmark and 30 times higher than products with the lowest concentrations of acrylamide.
“In total, four samples of similar products from the brand Little Dish exceeded the recommended EU benchmark (200µg/kg) while one sample from Ella’s Kitchen came close to it,” the report says, stressing that Changing Markets and SumOfUs’ survey of baby biscuits in France found only one product – Nestlé brand – that had levels higher than the benchmark.
Similar products sold in Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, and Bulgaria, were recently recalled for having high levels of acrylamide, Changing Markets claimed.
In the meantime, Changing Markets and Brussels-area news service BRUZZ conducted a similar investigation last month (23 February) of Belgian fries sold in the capital. They found that 15% of the food business surveyed sell fries with high levels of acrylamide, exceeding the European benchmark of 600 µg/kg.
The highest acrylamide level found in the survey was 670 µg/kg, over six times higher than the lowest at 100 µg/kg, followed by two samples at 660 and 620 µg/kg.
Nuša Urbančič from Changing Markets said, “It’s time for the Commission to put in place a robust legal framework that sets ambitious legally binding limits for acrylamide in food to ensure that business operators make real efforts to reduce its presence.”
Contacted by EURACTIV.com, a European Commission spokesperson stressed that the executive had not adopted any formal position yet.
“The discussions with member states and stakeholders are ongoing on a technical level by the Commission services, which are working towards a reduction of the presence of acrylamide in food,” the EU official emphasised.
EURACTIV was informed that the regulatory measure in preparation envisages imposing mandatory application by all concerned food business operators of mitigation measures to reduce the presence of acrylamide in food.
Food businesses are obliged to monitor the effectiveness of the mitigation measures to reduce the presence of acrylamide to demonstrate that acrylamide levels are below the set benchmark levels. The benchmark levels to be used to measure the efficacy of the applied mitigation measures are set at a strict level, taking into account the most recent occurrence data from the EFSA database.
Impossible to fully eliminate it
Florence Ranson, communications director of FoodDrinkEurope, told EURACTIV that she was aware of the studies but has not analysed them, as they refer to individual companies.
Ranson said that it was “impossible to completely eliminate acrylamide” as it is natural.
“This is why our industry has worked on reducing the levels to as low as possible over the last 15 years, by adapting recipes, selecting ingredients, limiting cooking temperatures,” Ranson said.
“We have been calling for the assessment of these tools to be made compulsory (which we understand may be part of the Commission’s proposed Regulation) so they are effectively applied or sanctions and enforcement measures would be called for. The sooner this approach is in place, the better for our products and for consumers,” she added.
It is foreseen in a second phase to initiate the discussion on setting maximum levels for certain foods or food categories are placed on the market ready to eat.
Need for a binding legislation
Public health NGOs put pressure on the Commission to take immediate action and set obligatory maximum levels to the industry.
Floriana Cimmarusti, secretary-general of Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE) admitted that the formation of acrylamide was a naturally occurring phenomenon, but it was still possible to efficiently reduce its levels in food products.
“Yet, as recent findings have shown, many companies currently fail to do so; this situation should not last any longer, especially considering health risks fall most heavily on children,” she stressed, point out that this illustrates the necessity for EU lawmakers to compel food business operators to limit these levels through legislation.
“To ensure the effective enforcement of any mandatory measure, the legislation should moreover specify the role of member states’ food agencies and mandate them to carry on regular controls,” she added.
Acrylamide is a chemical compound that typically forms in food products such as potato chips, bread, biscuits, and coffee, during high-temperature processing (above 120°), including frying, baking, and roasting.
In 2002, Swedish scientists found that acrylamide is formed during food processing and occurs in a variety of fried and baked foodstuffs.
Acrylamide occurs naturally when starch-rich foods are heated up and the level of acrylamide is determined by the duration and temperature of cooking. However, analysts claim that with specific measures, its presence could be reduced by food manufacturers.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) last year (June 2015) noted that that acrylamide was a “public health concern as it potentially increases the risk of developing cancer in consumers of all ages”.
It is also categorised an “extremely hazardous substance” by the US Environmental Protection Agency.