Pretty good odds on toxic rice

Tell your grand-kids about the great rice scare of 2012. Everyone dressed in radiation suits and attended midnight rice-burnings. The flames licked the sky. I still shake my fist at Consumer Reports, whose dark witchcraft revealed the awful truth.

Organic rice baby cereal, rice breakfast cereals, brown rice, white rice—new tests by Consumer Reports have found that those and other types of rice products on grocery shelves contain arsenic, many at worrisome levels.

Many scary words follow in their report. They explain their methodology and present their data. In the end, they make some recommendations.

Consumers Union believes a standard for arsenic should be set for rice, and industry should accelerate efforts to reduce arsenic levels in rice. They should also develop types of rice that take up less arsenic, and use rice with the lowest possible arsenic in products for young children, such as infant rice cereal.

This is not unreasonable. There are murmurs of corroboration, too. Nobody wants to be seen shoving fistfuls of poisonous rice down our kids’ throats. Nobody wants to be that guy. There’s so much parental peer-pressure these days.

Are you sure this isn’t Earth?

I didn’t learn about this brouhaha on a newscast or anything. I don’t even have cable. That stuff will kill you. I learned of this after a visit to Yoni Freedhoff’s blog (because I’m a fossil who still uses RSS feeds). He pointed readers to David Katz, who boils things down:

…inevitably, when a peril in our food or medicine cabinet or environment is pointed out to us, it invites the hyperbole of concentrated media attention, an inclination to invoke conspiracy theories, and at least some temptation to panic. When we do give in to panic, we tend to jettison the baby along with the bath water, resulting in net harm.

Consumer Reports put a spotlight on a thing. It’s a real thing and the level of concern we should have is non-zero. Arsenic is not part of a nutritious lunch. But the spotlight’s the thing: it can warp perspective. When I’m trying to figure out whether to subscribe to the latest pop-health concern, I’m so torn. Some distant newscast is playing creepy-music with a montage of blood-red rice grains superimposed over wailing sheep.

What I need is perspective. And background. Background is hard. It can be boring. But that’s what Dr. Katz provides, and it’s one of the first casualties in much of lay science reporting. Basically, (1) we don’t live in a pristine world, (3) this is old news among scientists, and no, I didn’t forget (2), because it’s the most important bit:

We have known for decades that the four leading causes of chronic disease and premature death in industrialized countries are smoking, poor dietary pattern, lack of physical activity, and obesity. Yet these four are routinely ignored or neglected by people who get very worked up over the latest chemical threat in our food or environment. We should not ignore big risks just because they are under our control, nor exaggerate much smaller ones simply because they are not.

Bearing this in mind isn’t a health thing, but a life thing. It frees us to focus on more appropriate stuff, since we have a finite amount of attention. If you’re coping with obesity and looking to make better decisions, don’t ditch the rice-bowl for fast-food just because you were spooked by professionally trained frighteners. You’re still playing pretty good odds.

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