Food fright, a phenomenon mostly experienced by parents, is 2011’s 8th most important food safety story.   


Parents in 2011 have had to wade through scary stories about the purported dangers their children face if they drink apple juice, eat rice, use a Sippy cup, or pick non-organic fruits and vegetables.

It’s difficult to determine the actual level of risk.

Arsenic was a particularly hot topic, especially after “The Dr. Oz Show,” ABC’s afternoon TV program aimed at moms, tested brand name apple juices and said it found arsenic levels higher that those set by the government for water.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tried dampening concern, saying most of the arsenic in juice is naturally occurring (organic) and below the agency’s level of concern. Later, after Consumer Reports released test results on arsenic in juice, the agency acknowledged that arsenic it found in juice, while at low levels, was mostly the bad kind (inorganic)  FDA now says it will conduct more monitoring and may issue new guidance for inorganic arsenic in apple juice.

The apple juice scare barely had died down when researchers from Dartmouth College’s Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Center published a report saying arsenic levels in rice could also be a problem.

Rice plants grow submerged in water, leading to absorption of naturally occurring arsenic at levels higher than other plants.  The study involving pregnant women eating rice found exposure was about equal to drinking water with maximum amount of arsenic allowed in public water.

And it was not only arsenic. Bisphenol A, or BPA, the component of hard plastic used to make baby bottles and line the inside of everything from beverage to soup cans. California in 2011 banned its use in Sippy cups and baby bottles.

The European Union, meanwhile, has a top-to-bottom review underway on aspartame, even though FDA continues to say it is safe as a general sweetener in food.

In the United States, the Environmental Working Group’s annual “Dirty Dozen” listing of fruits and vegetables with the most exposure to pesticides also may leave many parents scratching their heads. If they can’t afford organic fruit and vegetables, are their children better off without any fruits and vegetables?

From nanotechnology to food colors to BPA, pesticides and aspartame, there probably will not be an end to food fright. New York University’s Marion Nestle told readers of her popular “Food Politics” column that it’s hard to assess whether these things are actually harmful.

“You eat these chemicals in tiny amounts–parts per billion or trillion.” she wrote on Oct. 2. “Whether doses this low cause harm is hard to assess for two reasons: science and politics.

“Scientist cannot easily measure the health effects of exposure to low-dose chemicals and the industries that make and use these chemicals don’t want to give them up.”

Her advice is to take personal and political action while waiting for the science to evolve, and to definitely not give up on fruits and vegetables.