A vote on the European Commission’s draft regulation on acrylamide, a contaminant formed in foods when cooked at high temperatures, will take place next year, an EU spokesperson told euractiv.com.
Some scientists and NGOs claim that the Commission’s proposal does not effectively protect consumers’ safety, while the food industry believes it is a step in the right direction.
What is acrylamide?
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.
At an event organised last month by the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), Camille Perrin, senior food policy officer at the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) cited lab tests suggesting that acrylamide causes cancer in animals.
In addition to cancer risk for consumers, Perrin stressed that other possible but less likely consequences were “damage to the nervous and reproductive systems”.
Scientists and policy-makers first dealt with the issue in 2000, and up to now the European food industry has been self-monitoring acrylamide levels on a voluntary basis by developing a toolbox and a code of practice in collaboration with the Commission and member states.
But campaigners claim that the results of the self-regulation regime and voluntary approach have been quite poor.
Referring to investigations conducted by member states, the Changing Markets Foundation, which campaigns on environmental and social issues, stressed that the current voluntary approach has failed, with many food companies not being aware of the health risks posed by acrylamide and others showing an “unwillingness” to implement measures to decrease it.
Vote next year
The EU executive declared its intention to adopt binding measures to tackle acrylamide in food on 25 October. The decision was expected to be taken at the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food, and Feed, an expert group made up of member state representatives, which assists the Commission on decisions of a scientific nature.
Contacted by euractiv.com, an EU spokesperson stressed that the draft regulation on acrylamide was scheduled “for discussion only” at the Standing Committee.
“The vote on the measure could be foreseen at a later stage next year,” the official stated. Asked when the vote will take place, the spokesperson said, “I cannot forecast a date at this stage.”
Consumer organisations welcome the Commission’s intention to deal with the issue. However, they believe that the current draft proposal will not deliver the desired results.
In a letter to European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis, the Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE) organisation stressed that the executive “missed” a golden opportunity.
“Instead of identifying a binding maximum level of acrylamide for different food categories, the draft regulation refers to indicative values that are not mandatory and too high,” the letter reads, underlining that National Food Agencies in different member states should be granted a greater role in controlling and monitoring the application of the maximum binding level of acrylamide.
BEUC shares a similar view. “Food businesses have had ample time to take action to bring acrylamide levels down […]. Regrettably the absence of a downward trend of acrylamide occurrence data in food shows the limits of self-regulation,” the consumer organisation said in a statement.
How consumers can be protected
Floriana Cimmarusti, Secretary General of SAFE told EURACTIV that the main problem is a lack of public awareness on the issue.
“Through our members (on a national level) we are trying to campaign for consumers because they don’t know what acrylamide is and how to reduce its consumption,” the Italian expert noted.
Cimmarusti explained that consumers could be protected by looking at the colour and avoiding overcooked food. “The less dark the better,” she noted, adding that when a food product is burnt, the level of acrylamide is “higher and toxic”.
Food industry backs the proposal
EURACTIV also contacted the EU food and drink manufacturers (FoodDrinkEurope) who said they were supportive of the Commission’s proposal.
Referring to the monitoring, Communications Director Florence Ranson said the EU executive’s proposal was not based on self-regulation, but used existing Codes of Practice to check mandatory compliance with indicative levels.
“Non-compliance with indicative levels means enforcement bodies can apply sanctions,” she emphasised.
Ranson also denied accusations that industry efforts did not lead to reductions in acrylamide levels.
“There has for instance been a proven 53% reduction of acrylamide in savoury snacks over the last 9 years […] Codes of Practice are compulsory and all food business operators are required to apply them,” she stressed, adding that if instead maximum limits were put in place, these would be too static and would not encourage businesses to do more to further reduce acrylamide.
“This is why we favour the ‘as low as a reasonably achievable’ approach, bearing in mind that acrylamide cannot be totally eliminated from the food chain, but it can be managed,” she stated.
“For the Codes of Practice to be fully efficient, we need to further spread them amongst Small and Medium Sized Enterprises in particular; it is indeed very costly for them, they need time and help to adapt their production; but once the Codes of practice are made mandatory, they will simply have no choice,” Ranson concluded.