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Want Cancer With That?

A pending lawsuit may force McDonald's and Burger King to put warning labels on the nation's favorite side order.
 
 
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Carbs have been taking a beating lately, and the news isn't getting any better. A pending lawsuit filed against fast food mega-corps McDonald's and Burger King may leave one of America's most beloved junk foods with a cigarette-like warning label: "May cause cancer."

Acrylamide, a chemical produced when carbohydrate-rich foods like french fries or potato chips are heated to very high temperatures, was discovered in 2002 by Swedish researchers to cause cancer and reproductive harm in high doses. Scientists in the UK, Switzerland, and Japan have all since reached the same conclusion. The FDA, along with the World Health Organization (WHO), considers acrylamide in food to be a "major concern."

Unsurprisingly, acrylamide is found in especially high levels in McDonalds' and Burger King's best-selling side order, cooked by both at unusually high temperatures to achieve that admittedly yummy crisp. Problem is: The higher the temperature, the more acrylamide you get. According to an article in the Guardian U.K., "Americans nowadays eat on average some 30lbs of fries a year and...35 micrograms of acrylamide a day -- many hundreds of times what the WHO judges to be safe." These facts, and the lawsuit filed to publicize them, has the fast food giants concerned that sales of the high-profit products may plummet.

So how do all the new discoveries affect the average consumer and their kids? While no government or state agency seeks to pull the beloved french fry from the shelves, they all agree on one thing: Americans should be informed of the risks.

California's voter-approved Proposition 65 uses labels to "help consumers make informed choices about products," which let the buyer beware of chemicals in food and consumer products that are "known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm." Unfortunately for consumers, there is no practical enforcement of the rule.

Alan Hirsch, a spokesman for California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), explains. "Acrylamide has actually been listed on prop 65 since 1990, for the hazard associated with occupational uses of the chemical, but its presence in food has only been known for about two years. Labeling of chemicals on the list, although required, is not enforced. "
That's precisely why McDonald's and Burger King are being sued. "Though it's the responsibility of individual businesses to have a warning for products on the list," Hirsch says, "Prop 65 allows any member of the public to enforce a warning if there isn't one in place." If the world's largest fry sellers lose, as many suspect they will, they'll be under court order to place acrylamide warnings in their California restaurants, if not directly on their packaging. Because fast food restaurants do about 60% of their business in the drive-through window, packaging labels may be preferred.

Enter Raphael Metzger of Long Beach, the tort lawyer representing the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) in the Prop 65 suit. "By targeting these two companies, the largest market share (of fry sellers) are represented. Addressing this issue with them means that the problem will be remedied in a large portion of the fast food supply, in foods that are highest in acrylamide." Currently, Metzger is waiting for the OEHHA to draft the language that will put people off their fries and chips.

From May 17-20 2004, the National Insitutes of Health convened a special panel to look specifically at the risks of acrylamide to reproductive health, ignoring its carcinogenic properties altogether. Though independent scientists found that there was a "minimal concern" that acrylamide levels could cause serious reproductive harm, chromosomal sperm damage was found in mice exposed to high doses of acrylamide (affecting the fertility of their offspring as well). The study concluded, however, that human reproductive health probably wouldn't suffer much damage.

"But," as the famous Simpson's line goes, "what about the children?" In 1996 it was recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency that children often metabolize chemicals and react to them differently than adults. According to Dr. Michael Shelby, Director of the National Toxicology Program at the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction, "Kids get proportionately 2-3 times the level of exposure to acrylamide as an adult." Unfortunately, nobody has yet studied the effects of acrylamide on younger bodies, despite the fact that children are clearly targeted by the industry -- Ronald McDonald anyone?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), whose aegis the issue falls under, has been studying acrylamide's affects on both cancer levels and reproductive health since the Swedish studies came out two years ago. Unsurprisingly, the embattled, and increasingly pro-business, agency has yet to release any data or warnings more specific than it's fuzzy comment that acrylamide in food represents a "major concern." McDonald's, refusing to return phone calls, had no comment on the case or the studies.

Starre Vartan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in E Magazine.