The Precautionary Principle

The front page headline of my local paper today reads “Danger Foods Still on Sale.” Some poor hack had been given the job of traipsing round 27 shops to find that 15 were still selling stuff containing Sudan I. Maybe I’m missing something, but so what?

From what I’ve read, you’d need to eat a bucketful a day for ages to do you any harm. In theory. And judging by the types of products containing this stuff, you would have died from a heart attack or a stroke long before the cancer kicked in.

That’s the problem with theoretical risks. They’re theoretical. Some laboratory rats get pumped with massive doses of something and then and surprise, surprise, they die or get cancer or whatever, leading the scientists to announce that this might theoretically do the same to humans.

So when they find it in food, they have to tell us. It’s called the precautionary principle. We have a right to know, they say. What they really mean is that if we don’t tell you and then you find out, you’ll sue us.

It makes great media copy though. So we see headlines like the above and the vulnerable go rushing to check their kitchen cupboards in a complete panic. And if they’ve actually eaten any of the products, it’s off to the docs convinced they’re going to die.

I wonder how many people out there are worrying themselves sick thinking they might have cancer? I’d be interested to know if anyone has done a study weighing the benefits of warning people about theoretical risks against the damage done by scaring the hell out of some people.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

1 comment… Add yours
  • Mosher 22nd February 2005

    I've been telling people for ages – eat KFC. It's good for you, so it is.

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