Industry News | August 4, 2008

Chip Makers Settle Calif. Suit

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A nearly three year lawsuit between California Attorney General, Edmund Brown Jr., and four potato chip makers ended Friday. Heinz, Frito-Lay, Kettle Foods, and Lance Inc all agreed to cut levels of the cancer-causing chemical acrylamide in their potato chips and french fries to 275 parts per billion over three years.

Brown calls the move “a victory for public health and safety” in the state and encourages other companies to follow suit. Chip manufacturers were not the only companies, however, to have lawsuits brought against them. In 2005, the state sued quick-serve giants McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC along with the chip makers and Proctor & Gamble for the high levels of acrylamide in their fries and chips.

According to the FDA, acrylamide is a chemical that can form in some foods during high-temperature cooking processes such as frying, roasting, and baking. In 2002, Swedish scientists discovered high levels of the chemical in fried potato products.

Last year, the three quick-serve chains in the suit agreed to post acrylamide warnings at their restaurants and to pay civil penalties and costs. In January, Proctor & Gamble agreed to reduce acrylamide in Pringles potato chips by 50 percent so that no warning would be required.

Under Friday’s settlements, Frito Lay must make a 20 percent reduction to meet the set standard while Kettle Chips faces an 87 percent reduction. Most Cape Cod chips are already near the compliance level, but one product, Cape Cod Robust Russets, contains more than 7,000 parts per billion of acrylamide and will either immediately carry a warning label or be removed from the market.

About one-third of the $1.5 million in penalties and costs for Frito-Lay will be waived if it can reduce acrylamide in its products in half the time required by the state. If the company fails to reduce levels in the required time, it will be forced pay an additional $2 million. Kettle Foods will pay $350,000 in penalties and costs, while the much smaller Lance Inc., will pay $95,000 in fees and costs. Brown reached a settlement the week before with Heinz Inc which will pay $600,000 in penalties and costs and will reduce its fried potatoes’ acrylamide count by 50 percent.

Despite the companies’ compliance, the FDA has made no formal warnings about the chemical and continues to research its effects. According to the organization, the “best advice for acrylamide and eating is that consumers adopt a healthy eating plan.” Brown says he will work with the companies to prevent undue public alarm while at the same time giving consumers information about the chemical.

Had the lawsuit gone to trial, it would have been a legal battle with scientific experts debating the extent of the cancer risk posed by acrylamide.

—Blair Chancey