Tuesday, October 16, 2012

You Can't Eat This

Furniture salesman Wayne Watson is said to have developed the respiratory ailment known as "popcorn lung" after eating somewhere in the area of 7,300 bags of microwave popcorn in a 10-year period. According to the article, he put down about two bags of the stuff every day, and wound up ingesting, and breathing in, an awful lot of diacetyl, which is one of the chemical concoctions that they use to create buttery flavor without having to use actual butter. Watson sued Glister-Mary Lee, Kroger and Dillon Cos, and was recently awarded 7.2 million dollars. Cue the outrage, incredulity and calls for tort reform. After all, there's not really much other reason for a case like this to even be considered newsworthy.

But the first thought that crossed my mind was a little different. Why, I wondered, are normal peanuts still legal? Estimates range up to about two and a half percent of the population having peanut allergies, some to the point that eating a peanut is more or less a death sentence if they don't have the proper medications on them. In similar cases, municipalities have agreed to cut down trees to protect a child from coming into contact with their nuts. And it appears a process has developed to create allergen-free peanuts. So why are people still allowed to sell allergenic peanuts? After all, if you invented a foodstuff that had the potential to kill perhaps one person in every thousand who ate it - even if they needed to eat the stuff regularly for ten years running, the FDA would never let you market it.

But "naturally-occurring" foods that are dangerous are generally tolerated. Something tells me that eventually this situation is going to have to change. Eventually, the simple need for more available calories to feed people is going to have to result in people being less reactive to risks - they simply won't be able to afford it. Not that we're going to see people who are deathly allergic to foods scarfing them down simply because they're desperate. But I think that we will start to see lowered standard for food safety, and a higher bar for legal remedies, as the current system will result in higher prices than people are going to want. Of course, there will still be people who want to have it both ways - for more foods to be on the market, yet still have the ability to sue for damages if they become ill. But that's not going to be viable for very long.

While the culture of expecting that only those scientific advances that are absolutely idiot proof will be allowed on the market is understandable, it's not going to be indefinitely sustainable. And maybe this is a good thing. After all, a little caution about what we eat has never killed anyone.

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