European consumer association SAFE is campaigning for ‘safer’ binding levels for acrylamide in food largely consumed by young children, and for ‘clear and definite’ maximum contamination levels to be set EU-wide.
Acrylamide is a chemical substance that forms when starchy foods are cooked at temperatures above 120°C.
Potato and bread, for example, are particularly at risk. Acrylamide has been in found in a wide range of foods, including chips, crisps, toast, cakes, biscuits, cereals, and coffee.
Why is this of concern? Because based on animal studies, acrylamide in food is thought to increase the risk of developing cancer for consumers of all age groups.
“Acrylamide is a highly carcinogenic substance produced in food while being cooked, which we find in foods consumed by our children and young people, such as biscuits, wafers, breakfast cereal products and crisps,” stressed Floriana Cimmarusti, secretary general of Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE).
‘Alarming’ levels identified in foods
In 2017, the Commission established benchmark levels for the reduction of the presence of acrylamide in food.
Now, the Commission is reviewing these benchmark levels, and SAFE is pushing for a significant drop in permissible acrylamide content in food, as well as for maximum contamination levels to be enforced.
SAFE’s stance comes in response to ‘alarming’ levels of acrylamide being found in food products over the last few years.
The average daily intake of acrylamide in children ranged between 0.5 and 1.9 μg/kg body weight in 2015, according to a European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) study.
The same study estimated that the average intake among adolescents, adults, the elderly, and the very elderly, was between 0.4 and 0.9 μg/kg body weight per day.
“With the current levels and those proposed by the Commission, the likelihood that our children will consume an amount that is dangerous to their health is very high,” stressed SAFE’s Cimmarusti.
According to a recent analysis of cases reported to the EU Rapid Alert System by Member States (RASFF) over the past two years, acrylamide levels were found between 497 to 2690 μg/kg – four to five times higher than what is currently permitted in the EU through benchmark levels.
Biscuits and wafers
In biscuits and wafers, for example, the Commission is proposing a benchmark level of 350 μg/kg. SAFE argues this should be reduced to 300 μg/kg.
While this food category is not always marketed as baby food, biscuits and wafers are frequently consumed by children. And recent tests, conducted by members of the European Consumer Organization (BEUC), found that close to two out of three were not in compliance with benchmark values.
“Therefore, in view of achieving an adequate and effective protection of infants and young children, SAFE proposes that all standard biscuits clearly marketed to children which fall under the group of ‘biscuits and wafers’ should have the same maximum level than ‘biscuits and rusks for infant and young children’ with a benchmark level of 150 μg/kg and 200 μg/kg for maximum levels,” noted SAFE.
Crackers and vegetable crisps
In the crackers category, SAFE is calling for a benchmark level of 300 μg/kg, rather than 400.
A similar situation was observed with other types of products also marketed to children and commonly given to young toddlers, noted the consumer organisation. “It seems clear that the proposed benchmark level of 500 μg/kg would hardly protect young population from excessive acrylamide exposure.”
For the vegetable crisps category, the EU has proposed a benchmark level of 700 μg/kg, which is well above what SAFE deems to be permissible.
Several consumer organisations analysed samples and found an average acrylamide content of 1121 μg/kg, with a median value of 830 μg/kg. “This is almost double the median value for acrylamide levels in tested potato crisps,” noted SAFE.
“In addition, the RASFF database reports numerous alerts in 2020 where acrylamide contamination reached levels up to 2690 μg/kg, especially for products imported from the East, well above what was revealed in the consumer survey.”
Given EFSA’s 2015 findings, SAFE does not believe the Commission’s proposed benchark will alter the current situation. Therefore the consumer organisation believes it is necessary to establish maximum levels of acrylamide in vegetable crisps to 500 μg/kg and a benchmark level ‘far below’.
What about dried fruits and roasted nuts?
Not all relevant food categories, according to SAFE, were included in the Commission’s new benchmark levels. Dried fruits and roasted nuts, for example, were omitted.
According to the consumer organisation’s research, however, some samples of roasted nuts were found to contain an acrylamide level above 1000 μg/kg, which is higher than any benchmark level set in the Commission’s regulation.
“As for dried fruits, even though they are not subject to high temperatures, they present a surprising amount of acrylamide due to their exsiccation over a long time,” noted SAFE.
The consumer organisation has also taken issue with the current control system, which secretary general Cimmarusti said is not helping to reduce the risk of exposure for consumers. “As on average, between 15 to 30 days pass from the time a Member State analytically detects a contaminated product and when it notifies the information to other States through the RASF.”
Within this timeframe, the products liberally circulate within the market and can be purchased by consumers.
Cimmarusti continued: “It is therefore time to move away from the current system and set clear and definite maximum contamination levels following the precautionary principle.”