The state of California is suing nine top food manufacturers, including Burger King, Heinz and McDonald's, over their reluctance to issue warnings that some of their snacks could contain the potentially cancer-causing chemical acrylamide.
Acrylamide was found to be linked to cancer in 2002. Then, the Swedish Food Administration reported high levels of it in carbohydrate-rich foods, such as french fries and potato chips, cooked at high temperatures. Studies indicated the chemical caused cancer in rats.
But the link between rats and what humans consume wasn't enough to scare people into taking a closer look at the food they put in their bodies. No, that took Morgan Spurlock, who in his documentary "Super Size Me" pointed out the dangerous effects of eating an all-McDonald's diet, which included weight gain, mood swings, sexual dysfunction and liver damage.
McDonald's, soon after the film's early 2004 festival premiere, stopped its practice of offering supersize meals. (To be fair, several people have chronicled their all-McDonald's diet regimes showcasing weight loss.)
Unfortunately for food manufacturers, no matter the result of these diet experiments, they prove the same point: people need to know what's in the food they're ordering so they can make an informed decision about what they'll eat.
Granted, stipulating that certain foods may cause cancer is rather an extreme measure that should give pause to even the most careless food junkie. But then again, lots of people still smoke cigarettes.
What the state of California is seeking is disclosure. Under California law (Proposition 65), companies are required to warn consumers about products that contain chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects. Acrylamide has been on the state's list of potentially hazardous chemicals since 1990.
State Attorney General Bill Lockyer is suing McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, KFC, Cape Cod Potato Chips, Frito-Lay/Pepsi, Kettle Foods, and Procter and Gamble to force the disclosure. One proposed label would look like this: Warning: Baking, roasting, frying and toasting starchy foods forms acrylamide, a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer.
Such an admittance, however, could pose wide-ranging legal, manufacturing and public-relations problems for food manufacturers. Think of it as the tobacco industry when it was loathe to admit its products caused harm.
The food industry is seeking an exemption to Proposition 65 requirements, arguing that acrylamide is a naturally occurring chemical. The industry also seems to be afraid of consumer backlash to any warning about potentially harmful food.
Acrylamide is only a trace chemical, they argue, and there are other, more-direct causes of cancer; therefore disclosure would produce an unnecessary public "scare." (The chemical seems to only compound to toxic level when products are heated above 100 degrees.)
And the acrylamide debate isn't the only one in the food business. Today, the seafood industry is resisting putting out warnings about high levels of mercury in certain types of fish.
Already, the stock-market value of companies in the food and restaurant industry has been trending down over the past few months (for a variety of reasons). But with several private lawsuits pending in Los Angeles County Superior Court holding food companies accountable for product disclosure, these companies could be in for an even bigger downturn.
The food industry's supersize fight to defend its position seems a waste of effort at best because people easily forget and ignore warning labels.
When is the last time an investor really took pause to consider the disclosure "Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results?" Do you actually not swim and take heed of "Lifeguard not on duty" postings? Movie ratings have also lost their effect. (Or am I the only one who wonders how so many kids get seated at R-rated films?) Even the mother of all warnings about tobacco has lost some of its punch. There are analysts and commentators (read: James J. Cramer) who are recommending tobacco stocks again.
It should be remembered that the first warning labels on cigarette packages were issued in 1966, more than 30 years before the tobacco industry had to settle with the government and pay its historic fine in restitution of the harm its products inflicted.
The fast-food and snack industry is in a position to stand behind health and nutrition, support what is good for us and disclose what may be bad. It would be a landmark and refreshing move if it would do so. And it wouldn't be so tough for the industry to swallow.
Withholding information, on the other hand, will be poisonous.
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