Frito-Lay and two other potato chip companies have agreed to reduce the levels of a cancer-causing chemical in their products … Acrylamide is produced when potatoes and other starchy foods are cooked at high temperatures. It is used industrially for treating sewage … California listed the chemical as a cancer-causing substance under Proposition 65 [which] requires companies to post warnings of exposure to substances that cause cancer or birth defects … The settlement requires the potato chip producers to reduce acrylamide to 275 parts per billion in three years, a low enough level to avoid a Prop. 65 warning label. That amounts to a 20 percent reduction for Frito-Lay and an 87 percent reduction for Kettle Chips.
In a nutshell. this long-overdue settlement illustrates the absurdity of imagining that the “free market” can self-police itself. Even though a cheap, efficient additive was confirmed back in 2006 that could reduce the amount of the neurotoxic carcinogen acrylamide in fried potatoes, the large manufacturers not only failed to begin to use this additive in order to reduce deaths and misery caused by the consumption of their products, they actively resisted informing consumers of the known toxic effects of their products (as required by law). Thus, “informed consent” of the consumers was not only frustrated, but actively opposed. Doubtless some hard calculations indicated that money spent legally resisting changing their procedures or informing their consumers could be cost effective versus the known costs of change. The externalities of the health costs incurred by those consumers of the fried potato products who developed cancer and neuropathic disease were moved “off-balance sheet”, and became Somebody Else’s Problem.
Absent ethical self-policing by these fried potato manufacturers, only legal action to enforce compliance with legal regulation has produced any sort of beneficial result. And the scope of this action is constrained: the overwhelming majority of fried potato consumers will spend the rest of their lives ignorant of the fact that these manufacturers conspired to feed them products contaminated with a known poison for several years, and the manufacturers escape with a small fine and continue to pursue business as usual outside the extent of the legal settlement (California). Together, and in the interest of short-term profit maximisation, these manufacturers combined and conspired to flout the law and to fight the State’s legal representatives for years so that they could retain the ability to produce and distribute a toxic product despite the existence of manufacturing processes that could reduce or eliminate the toxin. This is business as usual.