European research into the potential carcinogen acrylamide has received a massive injection of cash to boost the biggest international project to date on toxic substances formed when food is heated.
Led by the research team at Stockholm university that first discovered acylamide in food, and headed up by food chemist Kerstin Skog, the project will group together 23 collaborative partners, including the department of food engineering at Lund university and the National Food Administration in Sweden as well as research bodies dotted all over Europe.
The EU has committed €4.2 million over three years, and the project partners will match this sum.
Concern over acrylamide levels in foodstuffs arose in April 2002 when Swedish scientists discovered unexpectedly high levels of this potentially carcinogenic compound in carbohydrate-rich foods heated to high temperatures.
Since the discovery in April, national governments, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and food companies have measured acrylamide levels in a wide variety of foods - such as crisps, french fries and coffee - and begun to investigate ways to reduce levels of the chemical. Researchers earlier this year found that acrylamide is formed when glucose reacts at high temperatures with asparagine, an amino acid.
"I am very happy to have been entrusted with this urgent matter," said associate professor Kerstin Skog, commenting on her role as coordinator of the three-year EU project HEATOX - Heat-induced food toxicants: identification, characterisation, and risk minimisation.
"The project is not only about acryl amid but also other substances that are formed when food is heated, and the aim of the project is to develop and propose methods to minimise or eliminate such substances in food," she added.
As food safety remains a pivotal issue for the Commission and member states, the EU's relatively quick assignment of funds to the HEATOX project is a sign that it does not wish to drag its feet over the issue, recognising there could be too much at stake.
Earlier this year in the US, proposals by the state of California to make it compulsory for products that might contain the potential carcinogen acrylamide to carry warning labels met with anger from food processors and producers.