Food Scares

Why “Stop! Don’t Eat That!” Often Isn’t Good Advice

A number of activist groups have relentlessly sought to scare people away from certain foods and ingredients in accordance with their wide-ranging agendas.

  • The dietary scolds at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) have issued dozens of startling reports, press releases, and lawsuits over salt content, trans fats, and other common ingredients and foods. CSPI even has an ongoing “food porn” label for different dishes.
  • Greenpeace, the Mercury Policy Project, and other environmental groups hype the alleged negative health effects from the small amounts of mercury found in commercially-sold seafood, despite the fact they are not human-health organizations.
  • Acrylamide is a chemical compound naturally formed through the cooking of french fries, potato chips, and other starchy foods at high temperatures. Some scaremongers have used inconclusive science to make questionable claims about its negative health effects, and trial lawyers have tried to cash in using California’s Proposition 65 law.
  • Reports alleging cancer-causing effects of the chemical alar (found in apples) fueled widespread media hype in the late 1980s, devastating apple farmers.
  • Food and Water Watch, the Center for Food Safety, and other organic activists have attacked rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone, also called rBST), a synthetic supplement used to stimulate milk production in cows.
  • The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) claims that recent academic research blames cage systems—currently used on the vast majority of US egg farms—for salmonella contamination and demands that egg farmers go “cage-free.”

What does the research say? Scientific reviews of these activist scares reveal that they are at best inflated or, more often, totally bogus.

  • In reaction to reports that birds from large farms pose a greater food safety risk than small-farm birds, even Marion Nestle, a professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, states that, “There’s no reason to think the (large-farm) birds are any worse off from the salmonella standpoint.  If anything, I think the other ones have greater chance of transmission.”
  • The entire medical literature contains zero mercury-poisoning cases related to Americans eating commercially sold fish. Dr. Ashley Roman of the New York University Medical Center told Reuters that “there has been no case of fetal mercury toxicity due to fish consumption reported in the United States.”
  • Major studies investigating the potential links between dietary acrylamide and cancer concluded that no such association exists. A 2003 study published in the British Journal of Cancer demonstrated absolutely no link between acrylamide and human cancers. A 2003 study in the International Journal of Cancer found no link between fried potatoes and various human cancers. In 2007, after studying 100,000 American women, the Harvard University School of Public Health reported that there is no link between acrylamide and breast cancer.
  • In 1989 the British government concluded that there “was no risk to health” from alar. In February 1992, the American Medical Association stated that when “used in the approved, regulated fashion, as it was, Alar does not pose a risk to the public’s health.”
  • The Food and Drug Administration has approved the commercial sale of rBGH for more than a decade. In forming its conclusion, the FDA reviewed at least 120 studies.
  • HSUS’s talking point omits several important studies with different findings, such as a 2004 study conducted by the British government that found “no statistically significant differencebetween the prevalence of Salmonella contamination in samples from different egg production types.”

What’s the bottom line for me? Ignore the hype. Activists are not only wrong scientifically, they have even changed positions when they are suited to gain from it.

  • The benefits of eating fish far outweigh any hypothetical health risks. As Harvard’s Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian told TIME Magazine: “The real danger in this country, the real concern, is that we’re not eating enough fish.”
  • CSPI has flip-flopped on a number of food issues over the years. The group endorsed a switch by restaurants in the 1980s toward using cooking oils that contain trans fat. Later, CSPI led the crusade against trans fats.
  • The alar scare was an utter fabrication that served to raise money for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The Wall Street Journal published an internal memo from a communications firm after the alar scandal was debunked, in which it was stated: “We designed [the Alar Campaign] so that revenue would flow back to the Natural Resources Defense Council from the public.”
  • The synthetic rBGH is chemically indistinguishable from its naturally occurring counterpart, bovine somatotropin. There’s nothing wrong with it. The only difference between conventional milk and rBGH-free milk is the price.
  • Famed chef Julia Child aptly warned in 1989: “What’s dangerous and discouraging about this era is that people really are afraid of their food … Sitting down to dinner is a trap, not something to enjoy.”