The Food Scare ...

`THE only thing we have to fear is fear itself.'' Franklin Roosevelt's famous line from his first inaugural address, though somewhat weary from overuse, remains an eloquent reminder that fear is an enemy to right thinking and action. It springs to mind amidst the ongoing hubbub over the safety of the world's food supply. While it's not a new concern, food safety was thrust to the forefront of public awareness this month by the two poisoned grapes shipped to the United States from Chile, and by the dispute over the safety of Alar, a chemical sprayed on some apples.

These episodes have as their backdrop years of growing worry about the application of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and other chemicals to crops (coupled, in the case of the grapes, with alarm over terrorism). They sent a frisson of fear through the public mind. The immediate concerns have been allayed, but the longer-term effects, including the economic consequences of lost trade and jobs, could be severe - exaggeratedly so, since the actual health risks in the episodes appear to have been minimal.

That's not to say concern over food safety is unwarranted. FDR's brave words were not, and are not, literally true. Life holds dangers that demand prudent responses. The food chain is indeed vulnerable to contamination, directly - by the use of chemicals with uncertified risks - and indirectly - by toxins introduced through polluted water and soil.

There's no arguing against a clean environment and for the purity of food supplies. The latter includes, in our view, far less reliance on pesticides and other chemicals; we strongly support efforts to develop alternative agricultural methods, with, for example, greater use of insects to combat insects. (It's not a one-sided argument, however; organically grown produce costs more, at least currently, and the wide introduction of organic produce could hurt the poor.)

Still, there is merit in distinguishing causes for reasonable concern from fear itself. Fear doesn't impel useful action; fear impedes it. Fear doesn't focus attention on problems; fear distracts it, by giving wing to rumor, flight to falsehood, and rise to panic. It should be high on the agenda of every scientist, government official, consumer activist, or journalist concerned with food safety to dispel fear, not heighten it, the better to find solutions to the problems.

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