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The Risk of a No-Risk Approach

June 11, 2015

By: Jennifer McEntire, PhD- Vice President, Science Operations

Over the past week or so, activist interest groups have attacked components of canned products and sought to ban a list of flavors found in food. These efforts remind me of infomercials urging viewers to take a chance on a product with a “30 day, no-risk money back guarantee”. Is anything ever “no-risk”? The answer is no.

But the American society has been swayed into thinking that risk is a black and white issue: you either have risk, or you don’t. People think that risk is bad, so we should go with the “no-risk” option, right?

Unfortunately the expectation that we have “no-risk” options has left consumers with the inability to fathom, forget about actually evaluate, relative risk, weigh scientific evidence, and make sound decisions.

We have options, and some of those options carry higher risk than others. Every day that we leave our homes we expose ourselves to risk: risks of being in a car accident, struck by lightning, etc.  The alternative: to remain prisoners in our homes is not an attractive option, so we take the risk of going outside.

But don’t fool yourself into thinking that leaving home is risk-free. For that matter, staying inside your house is not risk-free either: there could be an earthquake, you could be exposed to lead paint, etc. The point is that we continually balance risk, generally unconsciously, and make decisions where we believe the benefit outweighs the risk.

This brings me back to the issue of BPA in cans of food. There is a false perception that detection of a substance, such as BPA, is a terrible thing. It’s the black and white approach: if it’s there, that must be bad. This approach fails to consider levels. How much of a substance is there is really important!

Let’s take botulinum toxin as an example. At low levels, we know it as “Bo-Tox”, the wonder cure for wrinkles. At higher levels it causes paralysis, including respiratory paralysis, resulting in death.  The dose matters!

This is true of virtually all substances, including BPA. For this reason, when the Food and Drug Administration, which has regulatory oversight over the safe use of substances such as BPA, makes decisions on safety, they don’t just say yes or no. They identify a safe level for use. And the food industry complies.

Scientific studies show that the use of BPA in applications such as the lining of food containers is safe. Even so, some food companies have been changing their packaging to remove BPA. That should be a good thing, right? It depends. BPA is used in cans for a very important reason: it helps prevent corrosion of metal, which results in deterioration of the can, which can allow bacteria to enter the product.

This is where we need to begin to weigh the risks of BPA against the risks of not using BPA. We can also ask whether there are alternatives to BPA that can prevent metal corrosion.  There may be, but that should lead us to ask whether or not the alternatives are any safer than BPA?  The possibility of unintended adverse consequences is something that must always be considered when considering situations such as this.

I can understand the frustration and confusion felt by consumers who are continually bombarded with information that is presented in a black and white alarmist fashion. One day something is good, the next day it’s dangerous. It’s important to remember that the basic premise of science is that of continued discovery. We should strive to keep asking questions, and keep learning, so that we can make better decisions for ourselves and our families. The food and other industries need to keep on top of science too, so that we can continue to improve the safety of products.

But as a society we need to recognize that nothing is risk-free, although some things, like the risk of BPA in canned foods, or a flavor that comprises on millionth of your scoop of ice cream  is extremely, extremely low and given the benefit, well worth accepting.


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1 Comment »

  1. […] these examples might be concerning, as a society we must recognize that nothing is free of any risk. We must also acknowledge that in our haste to replace something that is not quite ideal we may be […]

    Pingback by Is Different Really Better? Considerations for a Safer Plastic. — September 30, 2015 @ 10:19 am

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