Food Safety: The boy who cried wolf

October 6, 2003
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Let the scientists and regulators do their work. Let the process work as it has been designed.

REMEMBER THE FAIRY TALE ABOUT the boy who cried wolf? Once upon a time, a child decided to be funny and cried that a wolf was attacking his sheep. Men from the village hurried to his rescue only to find that he had called out to trick them and amuse himself. When a wolf really did come, the men assumed that it was another joke and left the boy to his fate.

The old parable has reared its head again this year. The “boys crying wolf” are the many groups who say they represent the consumer. They thunder from their pulpits that irradiation is bad, GM foods will destroy the world’s gene pool, our foods are contaminated with pathogens and that food chemicals are everywhere and the industry is doing nothing to control them. In the literature these groups produce, there are common words and phrases, especially the word “may.” This “may” cause cancer or “may” make you sick.

The latest cries of fear relate to acrylamide. This compound is apparently produced in foods that are cooked at temperatures in excess of 250˚F, specifically foods that are baked, grilled, roasted or fried. The FDA and agencies throughout the world are working diligently to determine not only how the compound forms in food, but how levels might be reduced. Preliminary research indicates that foods rich in the amino acid asparagines and glucose may be more prone to form acrylamide. This reaction occurs in all such foods, even organic products.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is the latest to call for limits on the compound, even though there is really no data that indicates it is harmful to humans. It is asking that the median level in foods be set as the limit based on tests of twelve samples of French fries. The acrylamide levels in these samples ranged from 20 to 218 parts per billion, so the median level would be 77. On the other hand, The National Food Processors Association says that setting levels “is not necessary at this time, particularly when there isn’t really good science to base rule-making on.” Based on the proposal, every food would be required to have its own limits. This would add an even larger burden to overworked regulatory agency staff throughout the country.

What is ironic about the brouhaha raised over acrylamide is that it is a natural by-product of the cooking process. Ever since humankind learned that fire is good and may be used for cooking, we have been consuming this chemical. The fuss reminds me somewhat of what happened when Dr. Ames at Berkeley tested natural compounds and found that some “natural” products were potentially more hazardous than compounds such as pesticides. He quickly went from being the darling of the critics of food additives to persona non grata. To those crying wolf: let the scientists and regulators do their work. The FDA and its sister agencies around the world have methods for evaluating risk and setting limits, if they are needed. Let the process work as it has been designed.

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