Capitol Alert

Should peanut butter come with a cancer warning? Lawsuit challenges California food label

Should potato chips and peanut butter come with a cancer warning? The California Chamber of Commerce has filed a lawsuit in federal court to block the state from putting a warning on food products containing the chemical acrylamide, which could apply to the popular snacks.

Acrylamide is a chemical that forms when certain plant-based foods are cooked at high temperatures, such as baked goods, French fries, peanut butter or potato chips.

“Exposure to acrylamide may increase the risk of cancer,” according to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

Under a state initiative known as Proposition 65 passed in 1986, products that contain cancer-causing chemicals must contain notices of health risks.

The state updates the list of known cancer-causing chemicals every two years. Acrylamide has been on the list since 1990, but was not a focus for enforcement in food products until recently.

The California Department of Justice enforces the law by filing lawsuits. According to the complaint, more than 461 companies have received 60-day “pre-litigation” notices “in connection with alleged exposures to acrylamide in their food products over the past three years, with several of those businesses being sued in connection with the notices.

In 2015, just 32 companies received notices suggesting they risked lawsuits from because their products contained acrylamide, according to the lawsuit.

The chamber states that “many businesses have chosen to forgo the expense and uncertainty of litigation and settled with private enforcers while providing warnings for acrylamide.“

In the lawsuit, the chamber called the mandatory Prop 65 warning for acrylamide “false and misleading.”

“Given the lack of reliable scientific evidence suggesting a causal relationship between acrylamide in food products and cancer risk, requiring cancer warnings for dietary acrylamide also will result in over-warning, diluting the effectiveness of Proposition 65 warnings on other products that actually do pose a risk of harm to consumers and diminishing consumers’ confidence in public health messages and the authorities who promulgate them,” the complaint states.

Chamber President Allan Zaremberg said in a statement that the requiring a warning for acrylamide causes “unnecessary fear” for consumers.

“The effect of too many bogus warnings is no warnings,” Zaremberg said in prepared remarks. “This case is about clarifying for both businesses and consumers that food does not require Proposition 65 warnings for acrylamide.”

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for McClatchy. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.