California AG says settles potato chip lawsuit

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California on Friday settled lawsuits against four potato chip and french fry makers after the companies agreed to reduce the levels of a cancer-causing chemical in their product, Attorney General Jerry Brown said.

Brown sued H.J. Heinz HNZ.N, Frito-Lay PEP.N, Lance Inc LNCE.O and Kettle Foods, along with Procter & Gamble <PG.N and four fast-food chains -- McDonald's MCD.N, Burger King BKC.N, KFC YUM.N and Wendy's WEN.N -- in 2005 for selling potato chips that contained high levels of acrylamide.

Last year the chains agreed to post acrylamide warnings at their restaurants and pay civil penalties and costs. In January, Procter & Gamble agreed to cut acrylamide in Pringles potato chips by 50 percent.

Brown said Heinz, Frito-Lay, Kettle Foods and Lance had agreed to sharply lower acrylamide levels as part of the settlement announced on Friday.

“The companies agreed to reduce this carcinogenic chemical in fried potatoes -- a victory for public health and safety in California,” he said. “Other companies should follow this lead and take steps to reduce acrylamide in french fries and potato chips.”

Acrylamide is a byproduct of frying, roasting and baking foods, particularly potatoes, that contain certain amino acids. In 2002, a study by Swedish scientists discovered high levels of the chemical in fried potato products.

Brown sued the companies under Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, which requires businesses to post warnings of any cancer-causing chemicals in their products unless they can prove that they do not pose a significant health risk.

Under the settlements, Frito-Lay Inc, which sells most of the potato chips sold in California, will reduce acrylamide by 20 percent, according to the attorney general’s office.

Brown said Kettle Foods Inc, maker of Kettle Chips, will cut levels of the chemical by 87 percent.

He said Frito-Lay will pay $1.5 million in penalties and costs, $550,000 of which will be forgiven if it can reduce acrylamide in its products in half the time required by the settlement. It will pay an additional $2 million if it fails to reduce acrylamide in the required time.

Kettle Foods will pay $350,000 in penalties and costs while the much smaller Lance Inc will pay $95,000 in fees and costs.

Brown said Heinz, maker of Ore-Ida frozen french fries and tater tots, will pay $600,000 in penalties and costs and change its fried potatoes to contain 50 percent less acrylamide.

The settlements were approved by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge as trial was set to begin in the matter.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is studying the problem of acrylamide in fried potatoes but has not taken formal action. The FDA website tells consumers that acrylamide can be reduced by not over-browning potatoes during cooking.

Editing by Mary Milliken and Braden Reddall