The Fear of Acronyms
There is nothing more guaranteed to strike fear into hearts and minds of ordinary folk than a sinister, three letter acronym – a TLA. Familiar ones such as BSE and CJD came to represent all that is wrong with the food we eat, and also the increasing inability of scientists to allay our disproportionate fears. Greenpeace and other groups insisted that they were justified in routine vandalism directed at experimental trials of GMOs – the 'Frankenstein foods' produced by 'tinkering with nature'. And foot and mouth disease rapidly became FMD, compounding even further our anxieties and panics.
Today, however, the TLA seems to be losing some of its neurosis-inducing impact. We now require extended three letter acronyms (ETLAs) in order that newspapers and our champions of nutritional correctness can maintain the required frisson of unfounded anxiety. And so we witness the impeccably timed arrival of 3-MCPD – a moniker guaranteed to unsettle even the most sanguine observers of media hype.
3-MCPD is, apparently, short for 3-monochloropropane- 1, 2 diol, the most common of a group of chemicals known as chloropropanols. It has been present in much of the food we eat ever since our distant ancestors invented the process of cooking. If 3-MCPD is fed to rats in very large doses over their lifetime it, like many other chemicals, appears to cause an increase in certain types of cancer.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has been quietly but systematically examining the levels of 3-MCPD in two surveys of common food items. In February of this year it reported: "The majority of samples in both surveys did not contain quantifiable levels of 3-MCPD. Where 3-MCPD was detected it was not at levels that would give cause for concern and there is no need for consumers to change their diet." (Information sheet 11/01.)
Not much to panic about there then, and little fuel for the lurid headline writers of the tabloid press. But help was at hand. While the contents of our supermarket trolleys might be perfectly free of this dreaded acronym, danger was found lurking in some bottles of soy sauce in specialist Chinese shops. Here quite ludicrously high levels of 3-MCPD were identified. And although the FSA was at pains to point out that these brands of sauce were not generally on sale, and that they had now been removed from the shelves entirely, the Star could not resist the temptation to scream: 'Chinese Food Can Kill You – Official'.
The Chinese, of course, have been having a bad press recently. It was contaminated meat from the swill bins of a Chinese restaurant that was claimed, by some, to be the root of the FMD epidemic which led to the mass slaughter of innocent British livestock. But Tim Lobstein, director of the Food Commission was having none of this xenophobic nonsense. As the scourge of 'junk food' of all nationalities he was more keen to direct us to the levels of 3-MCPD in humble domestic products. In a Daily Mail article entitled 'The Cancer Chemical Lurking in our Food', largely based on a Food Commission press release, he was quoted as saying "There is no justification [for] picking on soy sauce companies and making one law for them and another for us .. We estimate that soy sauce is responsible for about 20billion micrograms of 3-MCPD in our diets, while bread, crackers and burgers alone are responsible for 50billion."
We have noted the views and activities of Tim Lobstein in previous SIRC comment pieces (see for example, Junk Food Commission and F.I.T only for the waste bin). And he makes a habit of not letting the facts stand in the way of a good bit of scare mongering. By way of reply to the Commission's alarmist press release the Food Standards Agency took the unusual step of issuing a formal rebuttal:
"The Food Commission's story and press release are factually inaccurate. The FSA published details of findings of 3-MCPD in foods in February. The Food Commission received the details and was invited to a meeting to discuss the survey with consumer groups and industry. The Food Commission did not attend and has not provided any views on the survey to the FSA or the relevant expert committee."
Addressing Lobstein's wild assertion that "over twice as much 3-MCPD is getting into our food supply from UK-made food" the FSA observes:
"This is misleading. What matters is actual dietary intake for people. For example, you would need to eat around five regular sized packets of crackers a day to exceed safety guidelines, but less than ¼ of a teaspoon of the most contaminated soy sauce. It is highly unlikely that anyone would eat that many crackers, but we know that some people will easily consume more than that amount of soy sauce every day."
Later on the FSA statement concludes that even on the subject of soy sauce itself the Food Commission "exaggerates the problem . and gets its figures wrong."
Lobstein, of course, will not be deterred by this calm dismissal of his shrill and misleading claims. But he might ponder a while on the problem presented by the humble slice of wholemeal toast. It is in this seemingly innocuous ingredient of the balanced breakfast that the highest levels of 3-MCPD are normally encountered – over twice as much as in the cream crackers that he identifies as the toxic enemy. The summer barbecue, where freshly ground meat is browned over the sizzling charcoal, also has a greater potential to kill us than the processed foods he so despises.
We all agree that 3-MCPD is not a particularly welcome element of our daily diet. And it is prudent to ensure that we minimise the health risks it might present. So will the Food Commission now be calling for a ban on the pop-up toaster and the B&Q grill kit? We doubt it. Soon they will discover another acronym with which to frighten us – perhaps one which presents more clear-cut opportunities for furthering dietary correctness.
July 23 2001