The alarm about acrylamide was first raised in 2002 when Swedish researchers found it in many commonly consumed foods at levels up to 500 times the World Health Organisation (WHO) maximum limit for drinking water. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) officially recognised it as a potential carcinogen soon after, in 2005.
Acrylamide is present at high levels in starchy foods when they are toasted, grilled or baked through a process called the Maillard reaction, in which sugars react with the amino acid asparagine to give foods like French fries, crisps, breakfast cereals, baked goods and coffee their brown colour and tasty flavour.
Now, following feedback from industry on the levels found in different products, and on the basis of EFSA research, the Commission has updated the levels that should prompt investigation from industry and member states.
“Member States should, with the active involvement of food business operators, carry out further investigations into the production and processing methods used by food producers in cases where the level of acrylamide in a foodstuff […] exceeds the acrylamide indicative value set for the respective food category,” the Commission said in an entry in the Journal of the European Union.
The new levels replace those set out in 2011, when the EU listed the indicative values above which investigation should take place for coffee, some cereal products, crisps and French fries. These values were in the range of 100 to 1000 micrograms per kilogram.
The updated recommendations range from 50 micrograms per kilogram for baby cereals and foods, up to 4 mg per kilogram for some coffee substitutes.
The full list is available here.
The Commission also stressed that the levels were not safety thresholds, but simply indicate that further investigation was required.
“Therefore, enforcement action and/or the issuing of a Rapid Alert should only be undertaken on the basis of a sound risk assessment carried out on a case by case basis, but not merely because an indicative value is exceeded,” it said.
If a level is exceeded, investigations should centre on whether the food company has taken steps to identify and control acrylamide formation in its processes, in line with those outlined in FoodDrinkEurope’s acrylamide toolbox, for example, or the Code of Practice adopted by the adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission.