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Comments of the Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund on FDA draft guidance to industry on Acrylamide in foods

January 14, 2014

The Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund strongly supports the Food and Drug Administration in its efforts to advise industry on reduction of acrylamide in food products.  The Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that acrylamide is present in approximately 40% of the total caloric intake in a typical American diet.1 Given this near-ubiquity, and the fact that the chemical reaction which produces acrylamide also produces commercially desirable color, taste and texture characteristics, reduction of acrylamide represents a challenge.  However, the evidence of possible human harm necessitates its treatment as a significant public health issue. While this report represents an important step in FDA regulation of acrylamide and suggests many possible acrylamide reduction methods, we are concerned that this guidance is not specific enough in providing clear and concrete recommendations that can be implemented.  Although FDA guidance does not have the force of law or regulation, the addition of terms such as “when feasible” implies that the FDA is not serious in its efforts to persuade companies to substantially reduce acrylamide.  FDA monitoring of acrylamide in 2002 indicated wide variation even among products from the same food category –as much as 5 or 10 fold differences in several categories.  This is clear evidence that significant acrylamide reduction can be accomplished without losing desirable product qualities. Thus, although there is clearly much room for improvement, this report contains few immediately implementable guidelines for industry. Since 2002, it has been known that acrylamide is created in food products as the result of a reaction between carbohydrates and the amino acid asparagine at high temperatures during browning (i.e., the Maillard reaction).2  In addition to its known neurotoxic properties, both animal toxicology and human epidemiological studies suggest that acrylamide may be cancer-promoting, which has led to its carcinogen classifications by EPA, NTP and IARC.3,4,5,6 Higher dietary acrylamide consumption has been associated with increased risk of endometrial, ovarian, pancreatic, renal and possibly breast cancer.7,8,9,10.  Acrylamide is already regulated in drinking water and was classified by EPA as “likely to be a carcinogen to humans” and was classified by the National Toxicology Program as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” both more than a decade ago.  The European Food Safety Authority has been overseeing acrylamide monitoring within the European Union since 2007, and the European Commission has set recommended indicative values for acrylamide in food products, providing a quantitative framework for both assessment of reduction efforts and investigative action.  This is a very important health issue and we strongly urge the FDA to intensify its efforts and assert leadership of both the national and international efforts to regulate acrylamide and ensure public safety. Our areas of specific concern are the following:

  • While encouraging manufacturers to conduct their own testing, FDA should update and expand its own monitoring efforts.  Monitoring of acrylamide in food products over time is needed for any reduction efforts to be assessed and successfully implemented.  The current FDA monitoring strategy tested only several hundred foods in four geographic regions annually between 2002 and 2006, and the last publicly available information is from 2006.11  Given the wide range of acrylamide levels even within a single food category, more extensive and up-to-date monitoring is needed to adequately evaluate acrylamide levels and the success of reduction methods.
  • While this report encourages manufacturers to monitor acrylamide levels, it does not give any specific values which should prompt corrective efforts.  Without such guideposts, monitoring alone is unlikely to result in significant reductions.  Recommended target values or action levels, together with active monitoring, will allow FDA and manufacturers to directly access efficacy of reduction efforts and trigger investigation when needed.  The European Commission has set indicative values for acrylamide in food products, including separate values for products intended for infants and young children, and these values are intended to be gradually reduced.12  Indeed, these indicative values have been broadened to include more specific categories and some have already been lowered since their release in 2011, and the European Food Safety Authority is currently conducting a risk assessment at the request of the European Commission to determine if current recommendations are sufficiently protective.  Such a system provides a quantitative framework for reduction efforts and allows increased surveillance of items of special health importance.  Values at least as low as the 2013 European Commission indicative values should be adopted, with the shared intent of gradual lowering of these values as reduction efforts improve.
  • Without accurate and affordable detection techniques, manufacturers are unlikely to measure acrylamide in their products, especially when participation is voluntary.  This guidance encourages manufacturers to be aware of acrylamide levels in their food products.  This is a crucial step towards evaluating reduction efforts.  However, this vital imperative is followed by a discussion of both the technical limitations and expense associated with current methods of acrylamide detection.  While FDA has committed to improving these techniques, they remain costly and fraught with technical limitations, making widespread voluntary use, especially by small manufacturers, unlikely.  FDA should continue to investigate means to improve acrylamide detection and make specific recommendations to industry regarding best possible techniques in order to facilitate participation in monitoring.  As an example, the European Commission has recently set measurement uncertainty (MU) values and tasked the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN) with analytical standardization of LC-MS and GC-MS for acrylamide detection.  Such efforts, in addition to adoption of standard references, will increase consistency and improve confidence in acrylamide detection efforts.
  • In this guidance, the FDA specifically states that it does not intend to recommend one method over another.  This is unfortunate because it leaves both guesswork and legwork to industry.  FDA states that “this guidance is intended to suggest a range of possible approaches to acrylamide reduction and not to identify specific recommended approaches.”  The role of federal agencies should include evaluating reduction approaches to determine which are more efficacious and feasible than others, and providing that potentially useful information to industry, even if only to help identify and encourage prioritization of those approaches first, in addition to continuing research in this area.  Clear communication of superior and cost-effective approaches to acrylamide reduction may result in higher industry participation and more successful reduction efforts.
  • FDA monitoring since 2002 has shown that many foods contain higher levels of acrylamide than the level considered safe by the EPA for drinking water.  Some of the highest acrylamide levels are found in potato and cereal products which are common in the American diet.  These surveys also show that a healthy diet which includes whole grains can have significant acrylamide levels, potentially even higher than a diet which includes less healthful choices such as potato chips and French fries.  The FDA has maintained its message to consumers that a balanced, healthy diet is a way to manage concern over acrylamide consumption, when the evidence shows that this advice is not accurate. 
  • The effects of acrylamide reduction on overall product nutrition should be considered in the context of all health risks and benefits.  For example, lower temperature frying reduces acrylamide, but also requires longer cooking time, resulting in higher fat content in fried foods.  While we commend thorough consideration of all possible health implications of acrylamide reduction methods, FDA should also consider which outcomes can be more easily mitigated by other dietary or lifestyle interventions in order to fully assess risks and benefits.

Lastly, as acrylamide accumulates in food as a result of the handling and cooking process, rather than in the raw food itself, and is a serious human health concern, it could be viewed as source of food adulteration and regulated as such under Section 402(a) of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act with action levels.  We ask that FDA consider these improvements to this draft guidance, and use its full authority to ensure that the public is sufficiently protected.

The Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund

 For additional information, contact Anna Mazzucco at am@center4research.org or (202) 223-4000.