Years ago the American Council on Science and Health started mailing out mock holiday dinner menus listing the naturally occurring carcinogens in traditional Christmas and Thanksgiving dishes. The menus were a sly rebuttal of environmentalist hysteria about pesticide traces in the food supply and, more generally, of attempts to predict the health risk that tiny amounts of a chemical pose to humans based on the effects of huge amounts fed to laboratory animals. The message was threefold: Mice are not people; the dose makes the poison; and natural isn't necessarily safer.
Now at least some activists seem to have taken that last point to heart. It's not enough for food to be "natural" or "organic" anymore. It also has to be raw.
Two California environmental groups have announced that they plan to sue McDonald's and Burger King under the state's Proposition 65, which requires manufacturers to warn consumers about toxins in their products. In particular, the groups claim to be worried about acrylamide, a possible carcinogen found in starchy foods cooked at high temperatures.
In April a group of Swedish researchers generated alarm by reporting "relatively high" amounts of acrylamide in a wide variety of baked and fried foods. Last month the Center for Science in the Public Interest announced its own findings, saying the levels of acrylamide in French fries, potato chips, and breakfast cereals far exceed the amount the Environmental Protection Agency allows in a glass of water.
Calmer minds have pointed out that it's not clear whether acrylamide is a human carcinogen. If it is, the animal research indicates that people would have to consume enormous amounts of acrylamide-containing foods every day before an increase in risk could be measured. The skeptics have also noted that the acrylamide scare dovetails nicely with the wars on fat and fast food.
But acrylamide is not limited to politically incorrect foods. Moving from mock menus to mock lawsuits, the American Council on Science and Health this week announced its own Prop. 65 complaint. The target is not a burger-and-fries hawker but the country's leading natural food retailer. ACSH is demanding that Whole Foods Market put warning labels on its whole wheat and organic breads--a tactic reminiscent of the Competitive Enterprise Institute's tongue-in-cheek complaint about dioxin in Ben & Jerry's ice cream.
There's always a danger that such stunts will be misconstrued, of course. But it's safe to predict that, faced with a choice between starving and taking a more skeptical attitude toward food scares, most Americans will prefer to eat.