This month marks a milestone of sorts. It’s the 45th anniversary of the Modern Era of the Overblown Health Scare.
It commenced a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving in 1959 when cranberries grown in Oregon were found to contain herbicide residues. Ill-chosen remarks by a government official indicted the entire national crop as possibly less than "safe." Official backtracking soon followed, and some politicians made of a show of eating cranberries and putting them on their Thanksgiving menus.
But the damage had been done. The cranberry industry took an unnecessary financial beating.
The ensuing years have produced many more food-related hysterics. The infamous Alar fiasco of 1989, which had serious repercussions in Michigan, helped clarify that the regulatory process for assessing risks of chemicals is itself hardly trustworthy.
The supposed chemical culprits have been numerous. The nonprofit American Council on Science and Health recently published the fourth edition of its book "Facts Versus Fears: A Review of the Greatest Unfounded Health Scares of Recent Times." It discusses major demonized substances since the cranberry episode — cyclamates, saccharine, dioxin, Red Dye No. 2, nitrites, PCBs, bovine somatotropin, acrylamide and others.
Since the 1960s, the big scares associated with these chemicals have provided ammunition for some so-called consumer advocates in their relentless anti-business campaigns. In their telling, synthetic chemicals are suspect because callous corporations put profits ahead of people, and government is a bumbling regulator.
Such was the thesis of the well-orchestrated Alar extravaganza broadcast February 26, 1989 on the CBS-TV program "60 Minutes." The script claimed that Alar, a growth regulator used in apple production, was "the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply." Residues from fruit and juice were allegedly imperiling people, especially the very young.
The consumer reaction was in many quarters panicky: Am I killing my child? Should I take my apple juice to a toxic waste dump? Are we all doomed?
The broadcast was a vicious rabbit punch to the Michigan apple industry, the third largest in the nation. It had been trying to market a crop impaired in quantity and quality by the heat and drought of 1988. Then the entire apple market vanished virtually overnight.
Recovery didn’t begin until the next fall with a new harvest. The furor had died down by then, and many consumers and reporters were feeling they had been snookered by distortions in the Alar allegations.
Alar’s purported status as a "cancer-causing agent" was based on tests performed on small rodents that were force-fed the substance at astronomically high doses. Their physiological reactions under that punishing regime were supposed to be valid predictors of human responses to tiny chemical exposures across many years.
This regulatory protocol, as the American Council on Science and Health likes to point out, would cause a host of natural chemicals in foods to be classified as "cancer-causing." ACSH notes that the typical Thanksgiving dinner is full of them. Are these chemicals dangerous? Probably not, unless you eat thousands of meals each day.
One of those dinner substances is acrylamide, found in bread and rolls and other carbohydrate-filled foods when they are heated to high temperatures during processing. Acrylamide became the center of a food flap in 2002 after Swedish officials bypassed normal scientific channels to proclaim research findings at a press conference. Subsequent studies have discounted supposed links between acrylamide intake and several forms of cancer.
But activists pounced on this new opportunity to bash Big Business. Under a California law, sellers of products containing chemicals "known to the state of California to cause cancer" are supposed to inform their customers of that ominous status. A flurry of lawsuits and enforcement notifications about acrylamide ensued, targeted mostly at large, familiar food corporations. ACSH responded by filing its own notice under the law against a retailer of purportedly more healthful foods, since "organic" whole-wheat bread would contain acrylamide just like ordinary bread.
Over the past 45 years, the Modern Era of the Overblown Health Scare has evolved from inadvertent destruction to carefully crafted ideological warfare. While the pronouncements of food ideologues are now sometimes taken with a grain of salt (a substance that can be lethal in sufficient doses), eternal vigilance will be needed to ensure that "crying wolf" doesn’t work against our freedoms — and our diets.
Daniel Hager is an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.