Food safety experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) are meeting in Geneva this week to investigate recent reports that potato chips, French fries and other carbohydrate-rich foods contain a cancer-causing substance.
In May 2002, the Swedish National Food Authority published the first-ever report that acrylamide, a known carcinogen in animals, is present in high levels in some starch-based foods cooked at high temperatures. Since then, the United Kingdom and Norwegian national food agencies have also published similar findings.
"The limited data available at this moment does not, however, present us with a full picture, either of the formation of acrylamide in food or of the consequences to human health," said the WHO in a recent statement.
Behind closed doors, the 27 experts will examine the state of the evidence, what can be said with a degree of surety and what information is lacking, and will eventually make recommendations both to consumers and to researchers in the area.
Stockholm University researchers found that an ordinary bag of potato chipsmay contain up to 500 times more acrylamide than the maximum concentrationthe WHO allows in drinking water.
Dr Jorgen Schlundt, co-ordinator for theWHO's food safety programme, told a news briefing: "This is potentially a veryimportant area in relation to some of the things that cause cancer in food."
Schlundt added that suspect foods emerging from the studies were those containing a lot ofstarch which are treated at relatively high temperatures, above 356 degreesFahrenheit.
The cancers caused in animals include those ofthe digestive tract as well as mammary and testicular glands, he added.
Further details about the WHO discussions will be released on 27 June 2002.
When the Swedish study was published in May the findings surprised government authorities, consumer associations and the public alike. The bureaucratic wheels of the WHO generally turn at a much slower pace, and so, it is a fair to say that the rapidly assembled group of global experts for the WHO consultation must reflect the seriousness of the Swedish study.