Belgian fries, whose preparation can lead to high levels of possibly cancer-causing acrylamide, will not be subject to new EU restrictions. But food safety advocates say the risk can be avoided without harming flavor.
Lovers of Belgian fries felt as though they dodged a bullet last month when European Commission proposals failed to impose binding regulations on the way food can be cooked to limit the amount of acrylamide it contains.
Acrylamide is produced when foods are toasted or fried. The European Food Safety Authority says animal studies prove that it alters DNA and causes cancer. The double-cooked method of preparing the iconic Belgian dish had become a symbol of what the public feared would be outlawed if the strictest version of the European Union regulations was approved.
Food safety activists had sought a tough approach, with binding limits on the amount of the chemical that could be present in foods sold in the EU. Suggestions were made such as blanching potatoes first or frying them at lower temperatures.
But purists believe this could ruin the special character of Belgian fries.
Brussels feared for its fries
Belgian fry expert Hugues Henry, who has created the museum "Home Frit Home" devoted to the traditional "pommes frites" in all their crisp golden glory, was among those initially disturbed by the proposal.
"When I first heard it, I was worried," he told DW. "But five minutes later I said to myself, no, it's not possible. It's part of our tradition, and within Europe it's really, really important to preserve all the traditions of the different countries. Even Belgian politicians soon reacted saying, 'No, you don't touch our fries.'"
Indeed, the government of Belgium did fight the mandatory nature of the legislation and openly claimed partial victory for its failure to pass. The regional premier of French-speaking Wallonia, Willy Borsus, declared, "Belgian fries have been saved!" and said Europe "had listened to Belgium."
The proposal now simply requires food-serving establishments to "reduce acrylamide proportionate to the size and nature of their establishment" according to benchmarks considered safe for consumption.
Acrylamide excess is a 'preventable risk'
But Monique Goyens, secretary-general of the European Consumers Organization (BEUC), says that's not a win for Belgian fry shacks or for consumers.
Goyens, a self-confessed fry-loving Belgian, explains that her organization and others advocating stricter regulations never wanted to outlaw anything. "We are not for banning comfort food - we are not for banning fries or chips or cereals," she said in an interview with DW. "It's possible to reduce this exposure of the chemical without any reduction of the comfort or the pleasure of the consumer eating that product."
Goyens says testing of production processes has also shown no difference in the cost when lower temperatures or shorter cooking time are used.
"So what's the problem?" Goyens said. "The problem is, industry does not want to be compelled to improve the health-related aspects of their processed food."
BEUC and its member organizations will continue testing foods to see whether the acrylamide levels decrease, and, if not, will push for mandatory maximums.
She appreciates that consumers are starting to pay more attention to acrylamide. "[T]his is a long-term effect; you are not going to fall dead the day after you ate a product that is too high with that chemical," she explained. "But it's an accumulation. If you eat those types of products too often in your life, you increase your risk of cancer. People who want to take care of their health have to be reassured that [reducing acrylamide] is happening. That means either the industry by itself or regulation tries to reduce all risks that are preventable. This is a preventable risk."
Egg contamination exposes shortfalls
Goyens says the current "egg scandal," with the pesticide fipronil showing up in eggs due to the chemical's illegal usage, has highlighted toxins in the food chain that government regulators do not or cannot catch before they enter consumers' bodies. She insists that imposing tougher regulations on end products - rather than on the production process as it now stands - would be a more efficient, cost-effective way to keep producers honest and buyers safe. It would also allow the EU to more easily identify imports from non-European countries that don't measure up, rather than having to send examiners to the point of origin.
In fact, though, Belgium's beloved fry shacks are already getting good marks when it comes to acrylamide. A February survey by the food safety advocacy organization "Changing Markets" and Belgian radio station BRUZZ found that fries served up by the vast majority of establishments - 85 percent - contained acrylamide levels below that which the European Commission was proposing as a benchmark.
'It's about politics'
Outside the popular "Friterie Fontainas" in downtown Brussels, Nadia Malotras is enjoying her cornet of sizzling golden slices, which she says she does a couple of times per month. "Cancer?" she scoffs when asked if she's worried about acrylamide. "I've heard of a woman who lived to be 100 years old and she ate fries every day!"
Her companion, who wanted to be identified only as Serge, was similarly skeptical. "If you go in a supermarket you have a lot of [genetically modified organisms] and glyphosate," he told DW as he polished off his mayonnaise-laden portion. "For the moment potatoes are not GMO, so ...," he shrugged. "It's about politics."