Your next bag of chips or order of French fries may carry a cancer warning, thanks to California’s “Proposition 65” law. This is no joke, but it should be. On Friday evening California Attorney General Bill Lockyer sued nine food companies (including four fast-food chains) for failing to adequately frighten the public about trace amounts of a chemical called acrylamide in fried potatoes. But the Food and Drug Administration weighed in just two weeks ago with a letter that could make Lockyer’s entire strategy moot.
FDA commissioner Lester Crawford warned Lockyer on August 12 that Proposition 65 warning labels on food violate federal law if they (1) are based on inconclusive science and (2) don’t tell consumers just how much of a food they’d have to eat before risking their health.
The FDA was talking about mercury in tuna, another imaginary health risk, but its reprimand of California’s highest law-enforcement official should apply equally to acrylamide. Recent science (click here, here, and here) indicates that this naturally-occurring chemical — also found in asparagus, beets, spinach, olives, prune juice, breakfast cereal, and toast — isn’t a threat to anyone’s health in the tiny amounts contained in the food we eat. And using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a person of average weight would have to eat over 62 pounds of potato chips or 182 pounds of French fries — every day, for his or her entire life — in order to have the same cancer risk found in lab rats.
Bill Lockyer appears to have jumped the gun on enforcing his state’s heavy-handed law at a time when California regulators were considering making food-borne acrylamide exempt from Proposition 65 warnings. That would be a good thing. Weighted by calories, approximately 38 percent of the food we eat contains some acrylamide. And two years ago the FDA concluded that “no one food is contributing to the majority of the acrylamide” in our diets. If Lockyer’s warning-label test case comes full circle, diners and grocery shoppers would soon have to wade through a thicket of cancer scares before every meal.