The Magazine

Fear Itself

Reports of the perils of childhood have been greatly exaggerated

Aug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By ABBY W. SCHACHTER
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Julie Gunlock is one mother who’ll welcome the return of pink slime. As the Wall Street Journal reported recently, the beef product processed from scraps left over from butchered cattle all but disappeared two years ago when critics on social media and television turned the filler—colorfully known as pink slime—into the nutritional equivalent of cyanide. Now, however, pink slime is back, because not only was there nothing wrong with it in the first place, but the only thing worse than an outbreak of baseless hysteria against an otherwise safe food product is soaring prices—which is just what happened to hamburger meat once the filler was successfully labeled poison. 

Gunlock, my colleague at the Independent Women’s Forum, here bemoans the demonization of pink slime, along with a long list of other products that we’ve unnecessarily come to fear. As she notes in regard to pink slime:

The public’s ignorance of the meat production process is understandable .  .  . but it’s important that people make the distinction between things that are actually dangerous and things that are merely unpleasant. Alarmists prey on these misunderstandings to push their agenda—and often with serious consequences.

In the case of pink slime, the consequences were: layoffs among the workers employed in making what is officially known as Lean Finely Textured Beef, the removal from the marketplace of a perfectly safe meat product that had been developed to keep beef prices reasonable for ordinary consumers, and rising costs for school-lunch providers who had to spend much more to feed their students “because of trumped-up hysteria about a perfectly safe, healthy product,” Gunlock avers. “There’s no doubt that pink slime rates high on the gag meter, but the product isn’t dangerous. In fact, it’s an extremely lean protein source, coming in around 98 percent fat free.”  

To these negative real-world consequences add the fact that irresponsible reporting never gets corrected and the general public’s misunderstanding is never clarified. Gunlock worries about the impact on parents:  

A 2013 poll conducted by the Independent Women’s Forum showed that the more women pay attention to these media-hyped health and safety concerns, the more they yearn for more warnings. Yet the same poll showed an overwhelming majority (83%) of women say they have difficulty discerning between legitimate concerns and scary headlines designed to attract attention.

It is bad enough when ratings-hungry/scary-headline-loving news outlets create an unnecessary panic. But it seems much worse when the culprit is the United States government.

Take the federal rules for menu labeling that are now part of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The concept is that if they know the calorie count of the food at McDonald’s, consumers will make healthier choices, striking a blow against obesity. But as Gunlock explains, “Estimates are that implementing the law will cost private businesses as much as $315.1 million.” The fact that previous evidence from smaller programs requiring calorie counts on menus shows that it hardly makes a difference to consumers’ habits didn’t stop the feds from putting it in Obamacare. And businesses reacted accordingly: “Patrick Doyle, president and CEO of Domino’s Pizza, captured the panic of many business owners when he chastised the Obama Administration .  .  . for failing to understand the basics of how to run a business and how regulations like menu labeling not only kill innovation (in pizza toppings offered) but cost his company’s individual franchisees tremendous profit loss,” Gunlock writes. 

It is equally troubling when a legitimate professional association, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), demands that not one, but two government agencies—the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission—work to force food manufacturers to label products that may be choking hazards for small children. The statistics on kids who die from choking on apples or hot dogs is infinitesimal; and yet, without a reasonable acceptance of risk, any danger becomes intolerable. So instead of focusing on more perilous parental choices—such as opting out of pediatric vaccinations and encouraging others to do the same—the AAP spent time and effort demanding that the government force private businesses to label their foods as dangerous because some boy or girl somewhere might choke on a wiener.