Heading for burnout: why the food industry and regulators need to wake up to the acrylamide crisis

September 2016 Report
Heading for burnout: why the food industry and regulators need to wake up to the acrylamide crisis


Acrylamide is a carcinogenic chemical, found in numerous food products, such as bread, crisps, biscuits and baby food. While acrylamide occurs naturally when starch-rich foods are heated up, its presence can be significantly reduced through applying good practice by food manufacturers. Acrylamide in food has been on the agenda of public health regulators since early 2000s, when scientists first raised the alarm about its presence in food. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) considers acrylamide in food a public health concern as “it potentially increases the risk of developing cancer in consumers of all ages” and health authorities agree that “it should be kept as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP) as no safe level of exposure has been determined”. Since 2007 EU National Food Safety Agencies have taken a soft approach towards addressing this issue based on encouraging the food industry to adopt best practice and monitor presence of acrylamide in food. In 2014 both EFSA and the European Commission1 concluded that there has not been a consistent trend across food groups towards lower levels of acrylamide. This voluntary approach has clearly failed.

The European Commission now intends to adopt binding measures to address the levels of acrylamide in food through a decision in the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (PAFF) in November 2016. In order to address this public health threat, the Commission’s proposal must be significantly strengthened to reflect the following:

  1. The proposal has to set ambitious maximum levels on acrylamide in different food groups and a downward trajectory in order to make sure that industry takes responsibility for reducing acrylamide levels across all food groups substantially.The Commission intends to maintain the current approach of indicative values, which are at the higher end of the range of acrylamide concentrations observed by EFSA and much higher than the levels reported by industry. Given the lack of effectiveness of this approach over the last five years and the confirmation by the scientific community of the health threat posed by acrylamide in food, it is shocking that the Commission does not seem to be taking this seriously. Only by making it a legal requirement for the industry to achieve ambitious reductions in the levels of acrylamide, we will ensure that it does all in its power to reduce the levels of acrylamide. This is the approach taken by other EU food safety legislation to address the presence of carcinogens in food.
  2. The proposal has to strengthen the role of national Food Safety Agencies in this process by encouraging them to continue to monitor the presence of acrylamide in food products and to take legal action against irresponsible food-makers that fail to implement best practice to lower the levels of acrylamide in food.The current proposal from the Commission puts a lot of emphasis on industry’s self-monitoring of acrylamide levels in food. Given that the industry has done little to reduce the acrylamide levels in the past, it would seem more appropriate to give this role to National Food Safety regulators, who should also be encouraged to raise an EU-alert, investigate products with high levels of acrylamide and take legal action against irresponsible food operators. The setting of maximum levels on acrylamide would give such a regulative approach an additional boost.

    The past years have clearly shown that relying on the industry’s voluntary action has not lead to reductions in the level of acrylamide found in foods in the EU, despite health experts’ agreement that these should be kept as low as reasonably practicable. In fact, investigations conducted by Member States show that many industry operators continue to be unaware of the health risks posed by acrylamide and unwilling to implement the measures to reduce it. The lack of industry action in this area is exposing EU consumers – including those most vulnerable such as children and infants – to unacceptable levels of acrylamide in their diet. Prolonging this weak regulatory approach, as it is currently being proposed by the Commission, will not push the industry towards lower levels of acrylamide. The Commission has the duty to address this anomaly and propose an ambitious proposal that will genuinely protect the health of EU consumers.

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