On April 24, Swedish scientists announced that a chemical called “acrylamide” had been found in rice, potatoes, and cereals — all starchy foods that are usually cooked at high temperatures.

During the following months, two separate groups of California trial lawyers announced plans to sue a wide range of restaurants and food manufacturers, based on the premise that the acrylamide in French fries, potato chips, and breakfast cereals is putting the public in grave danger. The first “notice of intent to sue” was filed only 7 days after the Swedes announced their findings.

Not to be outdone, the global food police have put in their collective two cents as well. In late June, the World Health Organization convened a special panel on the “health risks” associated with acrylamide. On the very same day, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) issued its own test results of acrylamide-heavy foods and warned us all that the twin devils of French fries and potato chips are “the most contaminated.” (This statement has since been removed from CSPI’s website, but was preserved in Google’s cache. ) Now, food-nanny Marion Nestle is using the acrylamide story to conjure up fear of many other foods that she claims are “loaded with carcinogens.”

Noticeably absent from most of the news coverage about acrylamide is any meaningful analysis of the real risk to humans from cooked carbs. First, the classification of acrylamide as a “possible carcinogen” was based on lab trials with rats that were genetically bred to be predisposed to cancer. Second, if you take the lowest dose that caused cancer in those rats and multiply it to account for the size of an average human,
you would have to eat nearly twice your body weight in cheerios, every day, before you put yourself at any real risk.

Of even greater concern is the apparent collusion between so-called public interest advocates at CSPI and the willing plaintiff’s bar. Consider that the latest bunch of acrylamide nuisance lawsuits in California were filed by a law-firm front group called “Environmental World Watch” (EWW) the day after CSPI’s list of acrylamide offenders was published. And every single one of those lawsuits’ targets is an exact match for the items on CSPI’s list; the EWW lawyers even specified the same size orders of French fries and potato wedges.

It turns out that the tail was wagging the dog. Back in March, the California Attorney General issued sanctions against EWW and two other “bounty hunter” environmental groups — apparently, they had filed a combined total of over 5,000 “toxic tort” lawsuits in a two month period, and the AG’s office demanded a return to common sense. As part of its punishment, EWW agreed to give the Attorney General 30 days’ notice before filing any additional legal actions. This means that EWW’s lawsuits — targeting such brands as Wendy’s, Heinz, General Mills, KFC, and Procter & Gamble — were formulated nearly a month before CSPI issued its identical list of foods containing “disturbingly high levels” of acrylamide. CSPI has yet to explain how a bunch of California trial lawyers knew exactly which products it was testing, nearly a month before the rest of us.

On July 11 the California Attorney General dismissed the entire class of acrylamide lawsuits against food manufacturers, while allowing that he might reopen the case at a later date.

Adding an exclamation point to this story was the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), which filed its own acrylamide lawsuit last week under the same California law used by EWW and others. Demonstrating absurdity by being absurd, ACSH filed a notice of intent last week to sue health-food grocer Whole Foods Market, noting that its organic and whole-wheat breads posed just as great a risk as any other cooked, starchy comestibles. ACSH associate director Jeff Stier told a Reuters reporter: “We want the American Public to focus on the real health risks… rather than focusing on food scares.”