The state of California has settled lawsuits against Heinz, Frito-Lay, Kettle Foods and Lance Inc. after the companies agreed to slash levels of the cancer-causing chemical acrylamide in their potato chips and French fries.

"The companies agreed to reduce this carcinogenic chemical in fried potatoes -- a victory for public health and safety in California," said Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. "Other companies should follow this lead and take steps to reduce acrylamide in french fries and potato chips."

In 2005, the attorney general sued McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, KFC, Frito-Lay, Kettle Foods, Lance, Procter & Gamble and Heinz, for selling potato chips and French fries containing high levels of acrylamide, a chemical known to the state to cause cancer.

Acrylamide is a by-product of frying, roasting and baking foods -- particularly potatoes -- that contain certain amino acids. In 2002, Swedish scientists discovered high levels of cancer-causing acrylamide in fried potato products.

The suit was filed against the French fry and potato chip companies under Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, which requires companies to post warnings of any cancer-causing chemicals in their products unless they can prove that the levels do not pose a significant health risk.

Last year, restaurant chains including KFC, McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King agreed to post acrylamide warnings at their restaurants and to pay civil penalties and costs. In January, Procter & Gamble agreed to reduce acrylamide in Pringles potato chips by 50 percent so that no warning would be required.

Under these latest settlements, Frito-Lay, Inc., which sells most of the potato chips sold in California, Kettle Foods, Inc., maker of Kettle Chips, and Lance, Inc., maker of Cape Cod Chips will reduce acrylamide over a period of three years to 275 parts per billion.

For Frito Lay, this is about a 20 percent reduction, while for Kettle Chips, which contain far more acrylamide; this is an 87 percent reduction in acrylamide. Most Cape Cod chips are already near the compliance level, but one product, Cape Cod Robust Russets, contains over 7,000 parts per billion of acrylamide, and immediately will either carry a warning label on the package or will be removed from the market.

Frito-Lay will pay $1.5 million in penalties and costs, $550,000 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.

The state also reached agreement with Heinz, Inc., the manufacturer of Ore-Ida frozen French fries and tater tots, which will pay $600,000 in penalties and costs and will change its fried potatoes to contain 50 percent less acrylamide.

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

Brown said he will work with the companies to find a way to effectively give consumers information about the acrylamide in their products, while at the same time preventing undue public alarm and unnecessary warning signs concerning foods that contain insignificant amounts of the chemical.