Consumer advocacy group Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE) is calling for the EU to enact mandatory acrylamide limits after several Italian potato crisp brands tested as containing more of the potential carcinogen than recommended.

In 2017, the EU enacted a new regulation setting an acrylamide benchmark level of 750μg/kg of product and making mitigation measures mandatory from 11 April onwards, but it did not impose a legal limit, EU Food Law wrote on 12 January.

The lack of legal limits made food producers exempt from “serious consequences” and their products could not be withdrawn from the market, said SAFE.

To highlight the issue, SAFE’s Italian member, the consumer magazine Il Savagente, carried out tests on 18 brands of potato crisps sold in Italy, out of which seven contained acrylamide in excess of the EU benchmark.

The highest concentration of acrylamide was found in Auchan brand crisps, which contained 1,600μg/kg of the chemical, more than twice the benchmark level.

Other “concerning results” were found for Lidl (1,300μg/kg), Amica Chips (1,200μg/kg), Pam (1,000μg/kg), Coop (990μg/kg), San Carlo Classica (950μg/kg) and Amica Chips Eldorada (800μg/kg).

“It is concerning to see that three months before the regulation becomes applicable in the EU, the food industry is so far from keeping acrylamide below the benchmark levels set out by EU law,” SAFE said in a statement.

The group was now calling for the European Commission to make good of its pledge to “consider setting maximum levels of acrylamide in certain foods” once the legislation enters into force in April.

“The EU needs to introduce maximum levels of contaminants in food because relying on benchmarks does not protect the health of consumers,” said SAFE secretary general Floriana Cimmarusti.

“The regulation is a step forward, as it goes beyond the voluntary approach that prevailed until now and has proven to be completely ineffective. Yet, faced with the current exposure levels, we could have benefited from more determination. Setting a maximum level to reduce acrylamide in some products, starting with baby foods, would have been a change of pace in dealing with a food contaminant that continues to threaten consumer health,” she said.

Acrylamide is a chemical substance that is formed naturally by a reaction between amino acids and sugars when foods, particularly high starch ones like potatoes or other root vegetables, are cooked in temperatures exceeding 120°C through frying, baking or roasting.

While tests on human beings have so far been inconclusive, acrylamide has been found to cause cancer in animals and the general scientific consensus is that is has a potential to be carcinogenic in humans as well.