‘Burnt’ and brown foods once again came under the spotlight last month with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) announcing that restaurants would soon be required to build measures to control the build-up of acrylamide - a potentially cancer-causing chemical compound that forms in some foods when they are cooked at high temperatures - into food safety procedures to comply with EU rules.
The FSA is currently in the process of creating guidelines for restaurants to help prevent them from serving excessively brown foods, but products that are traditionally cooked with some charring - including Neapolitan pizza and naan bread - appear to be exempt.
The news that there is to be a crack down on acrylamide has caused alarm among the UK’s pizza players because the mark of a properly made Neapolitan pizza is a light charring round the cornicione (crust) of the pizza, also known as leopard spots. The famously strict Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana insists that the pizza is cooked in a 485 degree wood fired oven, and it would be nearly impossible to do this without some charring occurring.
Pasquale Chionchio, the Neapolitan-born founder of Santa Maria Pizzeria in Ealing, was among the first to bring true Neapolitan pizza to the UK and says any adjustment to the recipe or cooking procedure to reduce leopard spotting as a result of procedures put in place to prevent acrylamide would be unthinkable.
“It’s part of the dish - I don’t consider it burnt,” he says. “The mark of a skilled pizza chef is to be able to judge the five second difference between perfect and overdone. On the rare occasions we get this wrong, the pizza goes in the bin. A perfectly cooked pizza won’t be brown, the dough that forms the cornicione should be quite pale aside from the leopard spots. If it’s dark brown it’s been cooked incorrectly.”
Acrylamide forms due to a chemical reaction between certain sugars and an amino acid (asparagine) in the food. Studies in mice have shown that high levels of acrylamide can cause cancer. While studies in humans have proved inconclusive, some experts believe the compound has the potential to also cause cancer, although not everyone in the scientific world shares this view.
Other products in the firing line include overcooked chips and crispy roast potatoes. Businesses are likely to still have to comply with the legislation after the UK leaves the EU.
“As Britain negotiates its exit from the EU the FSA will review its position on food safety legislation,” says an FSA spokesman. “In parallel to the rules being discussed at EU level, we have been working with the industry to ensure that best practice is being followed and that acrylamide levels are as low as reasonably achievable and would continue to do so.”
The FSA and the British Hospitality Association (BHA) are currently drafting guidance for the local authority inspectors, who will ultimately enforce the rules, and will seek to clarify expectations for foods such as pizza. It is expected that by this summer restaurants will need to include acrylamide management as part of their normal HACCP or food safety management systems, as for other potential food safety risks.
The organisation says that non-compliance would be actioned by officers following a ‘hierarchy of enforcement’ principles whereby informal discussions with companies to resolve issues would be the first approach before ‘more formal sanctions’ are considered.
Last year, Italy put forward the art of Neapolitan pizza-making for inclusion in Unesco’s cultural heritage list with a decision due later this year. The UK’s Neapolitan pizza scene has grown significantly in the past five years, driven by expanding groups including Franco Manca, Pizza Pilgrims and Rossopomodoro.