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April 10, 2004
The Spectre of Alar Returns

The US has issued an advisory on a specific type of tuna and its higher-than-desired mercury levels, and as usual, the American public moves towards full panic mode:

When Joseph Ugalde, 38, a San Francisco marketing executive, goes out for lunch, he orders the Chinese chicken salad, the turkey avocado sandwich or sometimes the chicken pesto melt. But as of last month, one thing he will not order is tuna fish. No tuna salads. No tuna sandwiches. No tuna melts. "I loved tuna melts," Mr. Ugalde said somewhat wistfully. "Or I did."

Now, however, Mr. Ugalde is boycotting tuna, which he used to eat once or twice a week, because of federal advisories about mercury in it. ...

Consumers like Mr. Ugalde are the tuna industry's nightmare as they react to a federal warning about the mercury content in albacore tuna. More than $1.5 billion worth of canned tuna is sold in the United States each year. A staple of school lunches, dieters' meal plans and office workers' brown bags, canned tuna accounts for 20 percent of the seafood consumed in this country.

That statistic suggests why the industry lobbied hard for four years to keep a federal warning about mercury off cans of albacore tuna. In that period, consumption of all types of tuna in the United States has dropped by over 15 percent, and tuna has been displaced by shrimp as the most popular seafood in the country.

The only kind of tuna affected by the advisory -- white albacore -- isn't even the most common or even the least expensive tuna available, and the advisory only applies to young children and pregnant women, or those women trying to get pregnant. In fact, white albacore is still safe for everyone if intake is limited to six ounces a week, which the article indicates would comprise two meals. That hasn't stopped the American public from dropping tuna and seafood in general from their diets, despite warnings from health advisors that seafood continues to be one of the healthiest sources of protein available.

Health professionals are worried that the advisory's message is being heard all wrong in a country plagued by obesity and heart problems.

"The message of fish being good has been lost," said Eric Rimm, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, "and people are learning more about the hypothetical scare of a contaminant than they are of the well-documented benefits of coronary disease reduction. The dangers of the tuna fish is not well documented compared to the potential dangers for a 50-year-old male or female who are at much higher risk of coronary death."

In other words, people are focusing on the minor threat and missing the major sources of illness, such as lack of exercise, the voracious consumption of sugary foods, and an overindulgence in high-fat fast foods. They're missing the Starburst for the Star-Kist. It's a symptom of Headline America, where people think they're well-informed because they watch CNN Headline News and they scan the newspaper every day, instead of actually reading all the way through the articles.

Fifteen years ago, headlines about the agricultural agent Alar (especially a 60 Minutes report) caused a widespread panic about apples grown using it. People quit buying apples and apple products, a major crop in the US and a staple of a healthy diet, and Hollywood weighed in with a campaign to ban it led by Meryl Streep. Later, it was determined that you'd have to eat thousands of apples a day to get anywhere near a toxic level of exposure to the chemical in Alar. But it was far too late -- Uniroyal pulled Alar off the market well before that was finally reported.

Nor does this tendency to panic involve just foodstuffs. Dow Corning went bankrupt after facing billions of dollars in lawsuits over its silicone breast implants, with plaintiffs alleging that ruptured implants caused all sorts of autoimmune disease. Subsequent testing demonstrated no such thing, but by that time, again, it was too late; the product was no longer available. Nor does panic require legal action. Thirty years ago, Johnny Carson noted a news story about the shortage of government supplies, including toilet paper. Never mind that this was just a procurement issue, and that it had nothing to do with commercially available TP sold in supermarkets. His little joke about a toilet-paper shortage, in the time of the first gas crisis, sent consumers to raiding their local grocery stores, and it wasn't until days later -- when manufacturers had to bring TV crews into their facilities to prove they were doing just fine -- that it finally abated.

Somewhere along the line, the American public lost their critical-thinking capability. A joke on late-night TV causes us to squeeze as much Charmin as possible. A report on a specific type of tuna threatens a collapse of seafood sales. A few hundred militants grab guns and RPGs and it's the Tet Offensive or the Battle of the Bulge all over again. We may be the jumpiest nation on Earth, and we need to get a grip on ourselves so that we can focus on the actual threats to our health and our security instead of turning into Chicken Littles every time the wind shifts.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 10, 2004 9:29 AM

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