Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Do You Want Fries with That?

Today's LA Times (subscription) reports that fast-food chains serving up supersized orders of hot, crispy french fries may face lawsuits over more than just obesity. Officials are investigating the health risks posed by the chemical acrylamide, which is produced naturally when starchy foods are cooked, but which also causes cancer when fed to lab rats in large doses. The EPA imposes stringent regulations on acrylamide in drinking water, and in California, since 1990, acrylamide has been one of those things that "is known by the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm."

Now people have noticed it showing up in the food supply -- and not just in french fries. The FDA has tested over 700 foods and found acrylamide in a broad range of products, from potato chips to Kellogg's Raisin Bran to Taster's Choice instant coffee. The question now is whether the public should be warned. Under California's Proposition 65, product warnings are normally required whenever concentrations of a "known" carcinogen reach designated levels. For acrylamide, that level is set at 0.2 micrograms per day, and french fries can contain 100 times that amount. Needless to say, lawsuits are already in progress.

The predictable policy debates are already in progress too. Some fear the public would overreact to warnings, with possible deleterious effects on dietary habits. Others say that acrylamide warnings would contribute to the general debasement of the warning coinage. Still others say that warnings might prove beneficial, by sparking efforts to develop food-preparation methods that reduced the risk.

Might the balance to be struck depend on the food? We have argued previously that although there may be good reasons for serving Starbucks coffee at piping hot temperatures to maximize its tastiness, those arguments lose much of their force when applied to the McDonald's concoction. So too, the utility of acrylamide warnings might vary with the foodstuff in question. Most consumers probably already know that fast-food french fries, indulged as a dietary staple, will kill them, and consumers seem largely undeterred by this intelligence. To tell them about less significant risks posed by acrylamide may just worry them to no substantial deterrent purpose. By contrast, Americans sitting down to a breakfast of raisin bran and instant coffee may not be so acutely conscious of the potential dangers, and might welcome the information.

It's complicated, of course. If we scare people too deeply about the raisin bran, they may just head out for a Sausage McMuffin. In fact, this is already a longish post, and we're feeling hungry.
Fed. R. Evid. 702: If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise, if (1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data, (2) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods, and (3) the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.