Tuesday June 20, 2017

Belgium fights for its famous fries after EU deems them unsafe

Josiane Devlaeminck serves Belgian fries to customers in Brussels. Belgium's double-fried fries are a 'culinary  tradition,' says the country's tourism minister.

Josiane Devlaeminck serves Belgian fries to customers in Brussels. Belgium's double-fried fries are a 'culinary tradition,' says the country's tourism minister. (Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images)

Story transcript

Belgium's government says a new proposal by the European Union could spell disaster for the country's world-famous fries. 

"We adore our fries the way we make them, so just let us do so for the next 100 years, because the last hundred years it wasn't a problem, so why should it be a problem now?" Flemish Tourism Minister Ben Weyts told Carol Off, host of CBC Radio's As It Happens.

Traditionally, Belgian fries, are twice fried in fat. First, they go in raw to generate a soft, fluffy interior. Then they are refried at a higher temperature to create a crispy, golden exterior.

This raw-fry process sets Belgian fries apart from soft and chunky British chips, or the sleek and thin fries preferred by the French.

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Belgians often eat their frites with a dollop of mayonnaise. (Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images)

But the European Commission is proposing that all potatoes be blanched — briefly cooked in boiling water — before they hit the fat.

It's part of an EU effort to curb exposure to acrylamide, a chemical that can form in foods cooked at high temperatures, and has been linked to cancer in animal tests.

But Weyts says blanching Belgian fries is simply unacceptable, as it "takes away a lot of taste."

Weyts, who says he eats Belgian fries twice a week, has written to the European health commissioner, urging the regulatory body not to ban the "heavenly tradition." 

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Yucel Bas prepares fries by frying them twice at Bas Frietjes stand in Sint Pieters Leeuw, Belgium. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

The European Food Safety Authority has suggested the fries could put children in danger, but Weyts says there are other ways to reduce the risk, such as storing the potatoes in a cool location and frying them at lower temperatures. 

"Let's just use that instead of the imposing of blanching," he said. 

Health Canada says it's "currently not possible to determine the precise level of risk for human health" posted by acrylamide, and that "further research on the effects of exposure to acrylamide is needed."

On the heels of the Belgian backlash, the European Commission has insisted the proposal is a suggestion, not a ban.

"The commission has no intention whatsoever to ban Belgian frites — or any other frites, for that matter," spokesperson Margaritis Schinas said on Tuesday.

"Instead, the commission is preparing a new regulatory measure to oblige food business operators to apply a code of practice to reduce acrylamide in food, as it is carcinogenic.

"We are all very attached to the rich culinary heritage we find in our member states."

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Blanching Belgian fries before putting them in fat would ruin their unique taste, says the country's tourism minister. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

With files from The Associated Press