Unhappy Meals? Fast-Food Chains Sued for Fries

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California has filed suit against McDonald's and six other fast food restaurant chains, charging that they have endangered customer health. Tamara Keith of member station KQED examines the state's claim that fast-food fries contain a cancer-causing ingredient and should carry an explicit warning.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand, and this is DAY TO DAY.

French fries are, indeed, a guilty pleasure. One medium serving has 350 calories and 16 grams of fat, but there may be a more sinister ingredient lurking in your fries, a carcinogen. And now California's attorney general is suing several fast-food companies. From member station KPCC, Tamara Keith reports.

(Soundbite of vat)

TAMARA KEITH reporting:

An employ dips a metal basket full of frozen potato strips into a vat of bubbling hot grease. Thirty seconds later the crisp golden fries are done and ready to eat. College student Cameron Asemi(ph) knows he shouldn't...

Mr. CAMERON ASEMI (College Student): But, you know, I felt like having some fries. It's been a while, and they were pretty damn good.

KEITH: What Asemi doesn't know is that the danger may come from more than calories and fat. A carcinogenic substance known as acrylamid forms in the process of cooking the fries, as it does in other baked and fried products. California's attorney general recent filed suit against nine companies, including Burger King, McDonald's, Wendy's and Frito-Lay, asking that they warn consumers about possible cancer risks from their products.

This suit has its roots in California's Prop. 65 approved by voters back in 1986. That law requires warnings for products known to contain cancer-causing substances if the risk is one in a hundred thousand over a lifetime of exposure. Americans eat an average of 10 1/2 pounds of french fries a year containing far more acrylamid than what California deems an allowable dose. Edward Weil is overseeing the case for the attorney general's office. He says he believes people really are getting cancer from fries, and that's enough to require a warning under California law.

Mr. EDWARD WEIL (Attorney General's Office): If 20 million people in the state of California use a product, then if one in every 100,000 of them gets cancer, that's 200 cases of cancer. If you imagined those people all standing in one place at one time, it would obviously be perceived as a public health tragedy.

KEITH: Not surprisingly, the makers of french fries and potato chips don't want to see their product stamped with cancer warning labels. Kristin Power is director of state affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. She questions the cancer risk because most studies to date have been conducted on animals. And Power says acrylamid is everywhere, in wheat bread, cereal, black olives, coffee, even prune juice.

Ms. KRISTIN POWER (Grocery Manufacturers Association): When you toast a piece of bread in your home, you create acrylamid. When you toast a piece of bread at a restaurant, you create acrylamid. So the issue is how that information is given to consumers in a way that helps them to understand it and helps them to mitigate risk.

KEITH: The US Food and Drug Administration has raised similar concern, saying the risk from acrylamid in food isn't yet clear and labels could confuse consumers. But Dale Hattis, a professor at Clark University, is researching acrylamid and says the cancer risk is real, though not clinically proven in people.

Professor DALE HATTIS (Clark University): It's not something that you break the bank or take serious other risks to avoid. But if you can avoid it by reasonable, cheap, safe measures, then it's not at all unreasonable to start to do that.

KEITH: But even if someday fry bags come with health warnings, it may not do much to change eating habits. As college student Cameron Asemi says, there are too many warnings already.

Mr. ASEMI: Everything today causes cancer pretty much. You know what I'm saying? TV, going out in the sun--life's a bunch of risks, but, you know, so is a lot of things. Doesn't mean I'm going to stop doing it.

KEITH: Even Edward Weil from the attorney general's office says he's eaten some fries since filing the lawsuit. He says he just wants consumers to be able to make informed decisions or, better yet, convince industry to change their production process to reduce or remove acrylamid. For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith in Sacramento.

BRAND: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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