Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Fry a potato, go to jail

A story in yesterday's L.A. Times reported that french fries in California may soon require a warning label -- not because they make you fat (but while they're at it, why not?) but because they contain high levels of acrylamide, a chemical believed to cause cancer. Lawyers who agitate for this sort of thing are suggesting that the warning be placed right on the cardboard container, as though a serving of spuds was the same as a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of beer. It's a public health hazard, after all, and the public has a right to know.

The trouble is, the acrylamide's not there because the fry-makers put it there; it's there because the potatoes are cooked. Most any cooked food has some of the chemical. So technically, the FDA should be sending someone to your house and, as you take the food out of the oven and place it on the table, slapping a warning label on top. Kids would probably enjoy this, because they would argue that those Brussels sprouts really are poisoning them. But it's doubtful they'd want to eat them raw, either.

The argument's been raised that too many warning labels tend to make people ignore all warning labels, and I think there's some truth in that. It seems like everything these days has a warning label, some useful, some ridiculous, and I'd probably pay as little attention to one on a package of fries as I do to the lawsuit-targeted instructions that tell me my coffee is really, really hot. Maybe french fries do cause cancer; maybe they do, all on their own, lure us into obesity; maybe the salt content can raise our blood pressure, the fat content our cholesterol; maybe it's not safe to eat them while driving, or feed them to the dog. Maybe fast food joints should just have a lawyer at each cash register to read us our rights before ordering. But honestly, if this stuff was really and truly good for us, would we crave it so strongly?

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