When law students resort to suing their alma mater, it may signal a weak employment market for the litigiously inclined. Unfortunately, some California lawyers have been putting their degrees to use in another creative but abusive way: bounty-hunting under Proposition 65, the state’s toxic “right-to-know” law. But fortunately for consumers, one of their latest get-rich-quick strategies may be a dead end.
Since Prop 65’s passage in 1986, lawyers have exploited this safe-drinking-water law to shakedown food manufacturers for producing foods that have chemicals in them that might—emphasize might—be carcinogenic, depending on the exposure. In their sights now is a chemical called acrylamide. In 1990, California listed acrylamide as potentially hazardous due to concerns about workplace exposure. But more recently, scientists discovered that acrylamide can form in foods (in very, very low levels) during frying, roasting, and baking.
In May, a California law firm filed a lawsuit over acrylamide being in coffee and demanded warning labels on every cup of joe. Sound a little overzealous? Washington D.C.-based WTOP reports that even the Food and Drug Administration says acrylamide isn’t a major health issue:
"The FDA is continuing its research on acrylamide, but there is nothing that has been shown that this is a public health concern," says FDA spokesman Doug Karas.
Karas says recent tests on animals showed that when exposed to very high levels of acrylamide, it can lead to cancer. But he says those are "much higher levels than we would ever be exposed to when eating."
How much higher? The average person is exposed to levels of acrylamide thousands of times lower than the amount that causes cancer in lab rats. In order to be in any real danger from acrylamide, a person of average weight would have to consume 62 pounds of potato chips or 182 pounds of french fries every day for a lifetime. Not even Michael Phelps eats that much food.
In fact, trace amounts of acrylamide can be found in prune juice, roasted asparagus, olives, breads, tomato sauce, and banana chips. Perhaps California lawyers think they should demand a skull-and-crossbones on every restaurant menu and in every grocery aisle. More likely, though, is that voters will get around to finally amending this case of good intentions run amok.