See the French translation
In the early 2000s, when risk issues were popping up like poison mushrooms, the Swedish regulators decided to raise alarm bells about the health risks from acrylamide (with human exposures brought about by cooking starchy foods). While other perceived risks attracted patient calls for further research (EMF, GMOs, EDCs, MMR …), the risk from acrylamide exposure drew howls of laughter and cemented Sweden’s reputation as alarmist and unscientific. Banning starchy foods because of the way they have been cooked (for centuries) was too stupid even for the skittish Western culture following from the Risk-Risk 90s.
But in the Age of Stupid, fear-mongering about acrylamide has come back with a vengeance, with activists pushing policymakers into the Ring of the Ridiculous, forcing the overly-gamed regulatory system to legislate on how we cook our food. NGOs like Corporate Europe Observatory and SumOfUs have proven how they could easily twist the system to force regulators to outlaw practically anything, like banning unicorns from urban areas or specifying the number of points on an Austrian snowflake. But these activists understand that people will donate more to them if they mention the word “cancer” at least three times in every paragraph. December is donation month and nothing warms the heart of NGO fundraisers more than the sweet sweat from fear (no matter how unreasonable the subject matter).
So what is acrylamide and how have the NGOs perfected the use of Stupid in their campaigning?
The European Food Safety Authority defines acrylamide as:
… a chemical that naturally forms in starchy food products during high-temperature cooking, including frying, baking, roasting and also industrial processing, at +120°C and low moisture.
Most foods are cooked at above 120°C, allowing them to brown, from toast to biscuits to fries and crisps (and even coffee … something that, if we took precaution seriously, should have been banned years ago!!!). Acrylamide is probably carcinogenic (yes, surprise, surprise, IARC has classified this one in a hazard assessment), but once again, it is a question of exposure (risk assessment). How many loaves of burnt toast would I have to eat in a day to have a legitimate cancer risk? Well, that’s hard to say since a good part of the scientific community does not believe acrylamide is a serious cancer risk (see sources 15-19)!
While EFSA doesn’t want to get pulled into a numbers game, the Authority thinks it is probably a good idea to avoid the all-roast-potato diet plan. Although outside of their mandate, EFSA recommended exposure reductions. This is interesting because they found themselves dealing not just with the science, which is unclear on the existence of the health risks, but also a public consultation which brought in conflicting views. This process means a scientific agency now has to engage with all stakeholders and balance the fine line of respectable science and clear advice with public engagement and expectations from pressure groups. There needs to be a closer analysis on whether such an exercise is useful for the scientific advice process. EFSA was not able to give clear advice on a clear issue.
The American NIH was not clouded by activist conflict. They argue the point of a balanced diet with a variety of fruit and vegetables as the best approach for any cancer avoidance recommendations. The US National Cancer Institute rejects the acrylamide fear-mongering, does not make the association based on a few animal studies and does not recommend that consumers change their diets (so long as it is balanced).
Chemical + Cancer = Opportunity
With acrylamide we have two words: “chemical” and “cancer”. But despite the low level of risk, and that this chemical forms naturally, we all know what happens when those two words are used in the same sentence: people, even reasonable ones, get afraid. And where there is fear, you’ll find an opportunistic NGO (or in this case, five salivating groups). The European Commission is being pushed to regulate on acrylamide levels (draft due in January) and NGO campaigns (from SumOfUs petitions to lobbying from Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE), WeMove or Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) to threats of lawsuits from Client Earth) are amplifying the fear and muddying basic facts.
The manipulation of these activist campaigners is magnificently devoid of any moral character or integrity. Find for example how Client Earth, SAFE and Corporate Europe Observatory have announced that they plan to sue the European Commission if the legislation does not go their way. They are demanding that the regulations on acrylamide be redefined, not as a question of hygiene (non-binding recommendations on how food should be prepared), the approach the European Commission is taking and the most reasonable, but rather as a question of contamination (that some chemical has come in contact with our food and needs to be banned). The chemical in question occurs naturally when food is cooked – it is no more a contamination than a strawberry ripening or a potato going green. But, as opportunists, these activists know that by classifying the process as a contamination, binding maximum limits are then set and precaution comes into the game. As patently stupid as their argument may be, once these zealots game the system, they can then cherry-pick which products they can deny to the European consumer. Why else is Corporate Europe Observatory involved in this nonsense? You don’t need to be right or reasonable to win, just clever and manipulative.
And just to make sure that the campaigners win on emotional grounds, the campaigners use as many images of babies as they can. What regulator is going to make a stand for science and common sense in front of a poster or video of a baby facing a cancer risk? You don’t need to be ethical or decent to win, just clever and manipulative.
I feel that these activists from SAFE, CEO, SumOfUs and Client Earth are, simply put, awful (and I mean that in the most cynical manner). I often wonder how they, and the closed-minded antagonists who donate to them, manage to sleep at night. Somehow these activists (ensconced in the narrowing tribal confines of the Mundo-B building) have convinced themselves that they have the right to dictate (even nudgingly) how others can or cannot act, feel they are right and therefore empower themselves to exercise this right. I just see their righteousness and it sickens me.
We have cooked our food since man learnt to control fire; our cooking methods have continued to improve; and our food industry has shown responsibility in lowering exposure risks. Our exposure risk levels to acrylamide, not proven to be a cancer risk to humans, are extremely low while the fear-mongering by NGOs is becoming extremely irresponsible. Maybe it is time for some “reasonableness”.
- Is acrylamide a serious cancer risk? No! It’s the dose that makes the poison.
- Is acrylamide a serious fear? NGOs are unethically pushing the fear needle.
- Do we need to change our eating habits? The US National Cancer Institute clearly says No!
- Is organically grown cooked food safer? Aahh! Can I give you a hug, Snowflake?
Why then is the European Commission drawing up regulations on acrylamide? Sadly they have been sucked into the vortex of Stupid? Activist zealots are gaming the policy process in order to force us to apply the precautionary principle and ban foods that hundreds of millions of Europeans enjoy. And DG Santé seems helpless to stop the process. Stupefying!
#LetsBeReasonable people! We are not going to be banning toasters or denying people the pleasure of a packet of crisps. Acrylamide levels in processed food like crisps (chips) have already fallen by more than half between 2002 and 2011 so what is the point of this regulatory process? I suspect that the European Commission got trapped into honouring a commitment from some heath nuts and once the process got moving, Stupid just took over and the European Commission looks set to be the laughing stock of global regulators.
We should not forget that under the Lisbon Treaty, Member States can intervene and block ongoing regulatory processes that are deemed irrational or misguided. Acrylamide is a perfect candidate for such an intervention, but that would require courage of policymakers to stand up to the militant activists.
Precaution in this case is not at all reasonable. Sadly, the opposite is too often the case. Precautionary legislation produces unreasonableness, ie, illogical fears that create a misplaced need to act. It may result in frightened consumers changing their diets by removing starches (and replacing them with higher levels of fat). It may result in certain pleasure foods being banned, confusion among consumers and increased anxiety. I cannot see any point or any value from such a legislation.
Wouldn’t education be better?
Instead of creating fear and uncertainty, I feel it would be better to educate people and trust their decision-making powers. Don’t feed your baby coffee! Parents who do give infants a cup of Joe are probably feeding them other things much more harmful than processed starches!
I was taught in the 1970s not to eat burnt toast. I know better than to eat more than one serving of fries (the oil though is the real risk to consider). A balanced diet means I should not live on cookies alone! This is common sense and we should ensure that people get that message and trust they can make reasonable, informed decisions (considering how low the risk actually is).
Not educating the public and choosing rather to regulate products (and pleasures) off the shelves is the real cancer behind the acrylamide debate. In the precautionary Nanny State, the public cannot be trusted. It is a further example of the power game played by the activists. What the activists are doing is clear – they are not aiming to ensure a safer food chain, but further undermining trust in authorities and our food management system. In a post-trust era, who will we turn to for trust? The same group that sourced this fear and who is now asking me for a donation during the season of giving.
The NGOs behind this little game are not interested in a more informed population capable of making their own decisions.
The NGOs behind this little game are not interested in an open debate with consumers and stakeholders.
The NGOs behind this little game are not interested in more science and technology to reduce exposure (should acrylamide actually prove to be a risk).
The last point is the kicker. Researchers have developed a genetically modified potato that, when cooked, produces far less acrylamide. For some reason I suspect these activist hypocrites are really not interested in the solutions provided by science.
Acrylamide is only a normal discussion if we are living in the Age of Stupid!