The as yet unfounded claims about acrylamide have become a serious issue for snack manufacturers in Germany, as they attempt to regain trust among German consumers, known to be particularly concerned about food safety. Euromonitor reports.

Swedish researchers discovered in April 2002 that acrylamide, a synthetic substance used in the manufacture of plastics and dyes as well as to purify drinking water, also appears in certain starch-rich foods processed at high temperatures (over 120 degrees celcius). It can occur during baking, grilling, frying, toasting or microwaving, although it does not appear to affect boiled products.

Products such as potato crisps, crispbread, chips/french fries, breakfast cereals and bread were identified at an early stage to contain it, and in particular potato crisps have been singled out by the media as containing particularly high levels. 

A risk to humans?

Acrylamide was classified in 1994 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the WHO) as “probably” carcinogenic to humans, based on experiments on animals which were exposed to very high levels of the substance. It is not yet clear whether the levels found in food pose a similar health risk to humans, and research is still ongoing. Swedish and US researchers last week announced that there appears to be no correlation between acrylamide and cancer. However, Professor of Social Medicine Lars Hagmar at the University of Lund stated that it is too soon to conclude that acrylamide does not pose a health risk to humans.

While most countries in the EU as well as the US have confirmed the findings of the Swedish studies of April 2002, food authorities have mostly adopted a ‘wait and see’ approach, not wanting to alert consumers unnecessarily to possible health risks before experts have gained a better understanding.

The US Food and Drug Administration stated that consumers should not change their eating habits as a result of the preliminary findings, and in particular, should not avoid specific brands of food or a particular kind of food, based on the latest results.

The FDA is keener to emphasise the need for consumers to cut down on the consumption of products which are high in trans fat and saturated fat. Acrylamide received in fact comparatively little media coverage in the US, whereas issues relating to fatty foods and obesity continue to be of stronger concern.

Germany introduces ‘minimisation concept’

Acrylamide has been taken more seriously in Germany, however, where authorities are adopting a far more cautious approach. The German Federal Government introduced the ‘minimisation concept’ in 2002, with the aim to reduce acrylamide levels in foods as a preventative measure.

To achieve this, supervisory authorities are working closely with manufacturers to establish ways of reducing or possibly eliminating acrylamide in food products which are identified as containing high levels of the substance. According to the Federal Ministry of Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture, snack manufacturers were particularly willing to cooperate in identifying methods to reduce acrylamide levels in potato crisps from a very early stage.

Concerned consumers typically show caution

Potato crisp manufacturers have suffered the greatest impact from reports in the press on the possible risks of their products to consumers – claiming that since the publication of the research findings, volume sales of potato crisps have declined by as much as 20%. Chips/crisps had performed strongly during 2001, achieving retail volume growth of over 5% according to leading global market analyst Euromonitor, and a similar pattern was expected in 2002. However, even if manufacturer claims are exaggerated (a 20% drop would mean a decline in retail sales by as much as 13,700 tonnes) volume sales in 2002 have certainly been impacted.

This is due to the tendency of German consumers to show great concern over the safety of the food they eat, and the drop in potato crisp demand is a natural development, even though findings on acrylamide are as yet not conclusive.

During the BSE and foot and mouth crises in 2001, for example, retail volume sales of chilled processed meat in Germany declined by over 3%. Retail volume sales of Bolognese pasta sauce declined likewise by 2%, while sales of confectionery products such as pastilles, gums and jellies only recovered in May 2001 when leading manufacturer Haribo reassured consumers that it only used pig gelatine in its products.

When asked whether sales of potato crisps had declined in recent months as a result of consumer concerns, German retailers had differing views. While Norma, Rewe and Wal-Mart Germany did not notice a drop in demand, Tengelmann states that sales of potato crisps dropped noticeably last year, and are only starting to recover now as snack manufacturers are making consumers aware of their strategies to reduce acrylamide levels in their products.

Given the nature of food scares, even if acrylamide is proved to pose no risk, a degree of damage will already have been done. The fact that several significant retailers were not aware of a fall in demand suggests, however, that the 20% decline claimed by German snack manufacturers is in all probability exaggerated.

Manufacturers must respond to consumer worries

Nonetheless, snack manufacturers are concerned about strengthening consumer confidence in their products.

Intersnack Knabbergebäck GmbH, Germany’s leading crisp/chips manufacturer, stated that while its crisps do not contain high levels of acrylamide, it is working alongside other manufacturers to reduce levels as a preventative measure.

Similarly, Lorenz Snackworld, Germany’s number two, has dedicated a section about acrylamide on its website, informing consumers that finding solutions to the issue is a company priority.

While it appears that for the moment reassurance of this kind has helped regain some consumer trust and bolstered demand for potato crisps, it is certain that should more conclusive damaging findings emerge, products such as potato crisps suffer a more significant drop in demand.

It is important that manufacturers continue to focus on finding alternative processing methods which will enable them to further reduce acrylamide levels in their products, and the first manufacturer to be able to offer ‘acrylamide-free’ snacks will certainly have a major competitive advantage in the German market, regardless of the outcome of the ongoing research.

Related Euromonitor Research

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The Global Market for Savoury Snacks