Consumer advocates petitioned the government Monday to ban a chemical used in certain breads and other bakery items because it can cause cancer in laboratory animals.
The Food and Drug Administration has urged the bakery industry since the early 1990s to voluntarily quit using potassium bromate.
The American Bakers Association says very few bakeries still use the ingredient, which improves the strength and texture of certain doughs. The chemical has been banned in Britain and Canada, and California declared it a carcinogen in 1991.
But the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest cited recent FDA tests of 17 types of rolls and buns that found more than half contained levels of potassium bromate higher than the limit experts advise.
Studies show feeding rats and mice very high levels of potassium bromate can cause cancer. That doesn't necessarily mean people would get cancer, although the government generally does not allow food ingredients to sell if they're linked to cancer in animals.
Also, if bakers use small amounts and cook the dough long enough, the potassium bromate actually disappears -- it cooks away, experts say.
"It's a small threat," acknowledged CSPI director Michael Jacobson. "But it's not a negligible threat, and it's a completely unnecessary threat."
FDA food safety expert Alan Rulis declined to comment on the petition Monday. He said the FDA still is considering a ban or whether bakers can further limit potassium bromate voluntarily. The chemical was sold for decades before the cancer question arose, so banning it would require extensive legal steps, he said.
"If there was an imminent concern, the agency would take action today. It's not that," Rulis said. But sometimes, "people use it at high enough levels that it's a real problem."
"There's certainly not enough in there to threaten public health," said Anne Giesecke of the bakers' group, which is working with the FDA on new industry guidelines.
The consumer group advised avoiding bread, rolls, doughnuts and cakes that list potassium bromate or "bromated flour" among their ingredients.