Consumers Union (CU) – CU publishes Consumer Reports – is one of the places I go when I’m considering the purchase of a new toaster oven or washing machine. It does nice work comparing various brands and listing the pros and cons. I may not always buy the brand CU recommends, but the information is helpful.
I do not go to CU or its magazine for dietary guidance or food safety information. Over time, the organization’s information on what it deems to be “safe” in our food supply, e.g. BSE, antibiotics, etc., has been anything but helpful, and in more cases than not, highly politicized.
I generally ignore “food safety” studies from any organization with a political ax to grind. I’d like to think the public does as well. Sadly, generally unfounded messages of danger in our diets are hammered into our collective consciousness by a media woefully unprepared to report on technical food safety issues, but which thrills to any car wreck kind of story.
This week CU served the American public its in-house study that eating rice in just about any form means you’re ingesting “worrisome levels of arsenic.” You’ll recall a similar warning about arsenic in apple juice from TV’s “Dr. Oz” about a year ago, a warning roundly and unusually publicly shot down by FDA. I’ve dealt with arsenic issues over time – I have clients past and present who care about arsenic – and I’ve learned that to use the word “arsenic” in any context – let alone in these food safety “studies” where there’s nearly no context or explanation – is a very scary thing for consumers to hear.
The general media jumped on the CU story like a dog on a bone. As a former reporter, I can remember salivating over such stories, or as a former editor of mine once said, “The miracle of food production is old news; food will kill you is a great ‘man-bites-dog’ story.” The problem with this kind of mob media mentality is 99% of the reporters out there will simply take the CU press release, do a couple of local interviews, and spend almost no time analyzing whether the story is 1) accurate or 2) newsworthy.
While I honestly think there is a basis for examining our diets to ensure all is good, I want to hear about it from an impartial source doing objective research. FDA warns folks to take the CU report with a grain of salt, which, by the way, can also be a bad thing if you eat too much. The agency just completed its first analysis of 200 rice/rice product samples – it’s analyzing over 1,200 samples; CU did 60 – and will release a “more thorough” report by the end of 2012.
“It is critical to not get ahead of the science,” says FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor. “The FDA’s ongoing data collection and other assessments will give us a solid scientific basis for determining what action levels and/or other steps are needed to reduce exposure to arsenic in rice and rice products.”
Too bad CU and Congress didn’t get the FDA message sooner. CU has the hubris to make its own dietary recommendations on rice, and, of course, wants the government to ban any and all uses of arsenic in pesticides and other products based on its findings. And as an institution renown for capitalizing on any good press opportunity in an election year, Congress is getting involved. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D, CT), Rep. Frank Pallone (D, NJ) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D, NY) say they’ll introduce legislation to force FDA to “limit the amount of arsenic permitted in rice and rice-based foods.” To my friends on Capitol Hill, I’d strongly advise allowing FDA’s objective science to lead where it will. Federal legislation based on a single private activist group study is never a good idea, so it’s a good thng there’s no time left in this Congress for mischief.
The American Council on Science & Health (ACSH) is a master at putting these so-called “food safety” studies in context, or debunking them all together. While there’s industry money in ACSH’s bank account, the group, in my experience, is pretty objective about its evaluation of medical, dietary and regulatory “science” as they emerge, particularly when it’s clear those studies carry an obvious political motivation and are meant to frighten the public and lawmakers into some kind of action. From an ACSH e-newsletter this week, I submit the following:
“As ACSH has always tried to make clear, food naturally contains a myriad of chemicals traditionally thought of as “carcinogens” (see our Holiday Dinner Menu). These may be harmful at high doses, yet are perfectly safe when consumed at low levels — just like those at which arsenic occurs in rice.”
When you get to the “Holiday Dinner Menu” site, scroll down to the list of naturally occurring chemicals in all our food. It’s an eye opener. Once again, it’s all about the context and moderation in all things, including food safety “studies.”