TCS Daily

Bill Lockyer's 'Extremes of Moral Grandstanding'

By John Luik - October 4, 2005 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This article is the fourth in a series on the alleged acrylamide-cancer scare. To read the others, see part 1, part 2, and part 3.

For political zoologists, state attorneys general have long been one of the most fascinating species: third-tier politicians, whose frustrations with their lowly position, combined with the corner-cutting ambition typical of modern litigators, force them to extremes of moral grandstanding that might shame an ordinary public servant.

-- Andrew Ferguson, 9/27/05

With his end of August acrylamide lawsuit against nine fast food restaurant chains and food makers, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer has taken moral grandstanding coupled with junk science to a new level, even for the Golden State. Lockyer wants to force the companies to warn consumers that their potato chips and French fries contain acrylamide, a "chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer." It's not that Lockyer wants to tell people to "stop eating potato chips or French fries." Who would ever suspect anything like that. It's just that "...all consumers should have the information we need to make informed decisions about the food we eat." So just what "information" does Lockyer have that will inform our decision-making about potato chips, fries and acrylamide?

To begin with, he certainly has the "information" provided by The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which has been claiming, on the basis of studies with lab rats, that acrylamide found in food causes cancer in human beings. On June 14, 2005, Michael Jacobson, CSPI Executive Director, wrote to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment claiming that "it appears that acrylamide in food causes about 180 cancers per year in residents of California." In making the case for acrylamide warnings Jacobson argued that OEHHA's regulations about acrylamide "should be informed by several scientific facts: the United States government, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and a Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization expert group have each concluded that acrylamide is a carcinogen in animals and is probably a carcinogen in people; ... a few types of food-such as coffee, french fried potatoes, potato chips, some breads, some cereals, and some cookies pose the greatest risks because of the combination of how much the average person eats and the average amount of acrylamide in these products..."

The problem with Lockyer using these "scientific facts" as "information" is that they range from the false to the misleading, and thus hardly provide a credible basis for labeling accuracy. For instance, the US government's determination about the carcinogenic character of acrylamide relates to occupational, not food-based exposures. And as we have seen, even the epidemiological data on occupational exposures does not support the claim that acrylamide is a carcinogen.

Moreover, since the WHO expert group did not examine the epidemiological evidence about acrylamide exposure in human populations it had no scientific basis on which to reach a decision about its probable effects. But most importantly, the claim that foods such as fries, chips and cereals pose the greatest risks because of the "combination of how much the average person eats and the average amount of acrylamide in these products" is false. Using the doses referenced by the WHO report, an average-sized person would have to consume 300 pounds of breakfast cereal per day to reach the dose of acrylamide that produced mammary tumors in lab rats, a fact which makes Jacobson's California acrylamide cancer mortality figures improbable.

What is misleading about CSPI's "scientific facts" as the basis of Lockyer's consumer information is the fact that CSPI omits any mention of the most relevant information that could be provided to the consumer of chips and fries, namely that all of the epidemiological studies that have looked at acrylamide in human beings have found that it does NOT cause cancer.

So what Lockyer has as the basis for his demand to warn consumers of fries and chips about the supposedly cancer-causing acrylamide is a series of scientifically misleading, if not overtly false claims from CSPI that trade on a deliberate confusion between a substance being carcinogenic in animals and being carcinogenic in humans and a feigned ignorance of the first principle of toxicology: the dose makes the poison.

But it isn't just what Lockyer has that is a problem, it is also what he doesn't have, namely a warning that provides the facts necessary for consumers to place the information they are receiving in the proper context and thus make a real choice. But then, neither Lockyer nor CSPI want consumers to choose to eat chips and fries: the whole point of the warning is to effectively kill these products by branding them as carcinogenic.

Lockyer's proposed warning will say that fries and chips "contain a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer." The relevant words are, of course, "cause cancer". California is too clever to frame a warning that directly lies, so it does so by omission, by failing to provide the necessary missing information. The question is not whether orally-administered acrylamide causes cancer in lab rats, but whether acrylamide in chips and fries causes cancer in people. All of the epidemiological evidence indicates that acrylamide does not cause cancer in people. Indeed, based on the work of Dr. Lorelei Mucci, if California were really committed to truth in labeling it would have to label fries and chips with the following : "This food contains a chemical known to the state of California NOT to cause cancer in humans."

Another thing that Lockyer doesn't have is a principled reason for choosing to single out only fries and chips for his cancer warning. As some experts have pointed out, acrylamide is probably found in 40-50% of the foods Americans eat, including eggs, alfalfa sprouts, pizza, spinach, beets, asparagus, beef, and roasted peanuts. So why, given acrylamide's cancer potential, are the warnings only proposed for two foods, rather than all foods known to contain acrylamide? After all, according to the FDA "no one food is contributing to the majority of the acrylamide", so there is no rational reason for warning only about chips and fries. In fact, if Lockyer wants to be strictly scientific, the epidemiological evidence so far suggests that in those non-US populations studied, the majority of daily acrylamide intake in women's diets is provided by coffee.

People who wish others to make an informed choice provide them with accurate information to make that choice, not some paternalistic mixture of omissions and misrepresentation. They certainly do not provide them with a version of the information designed to steer them toward the "right' choice.

NEXT: Lockyer, the FDA, the California trial lawyers' bonanza and how acrylamide warnings would work against public health.

John Luik is writing a book about health policy


TCS Daily Archives