How afraid should we be of peanuts and peanut butter? The answer is_ Not as afraid as we currently are. Before the current scare, we were already overly fearful of peanut allergies. True, peanut allergy is the most common cause of food-related death, but this tragic event is very rare, affecting approximately one per 830,000 children with food allergy every year. The prevalence of peanut allergy is about 1percent - this incidence appears to be on the rise, but the perception of allergy even where it doesn't truly exist is rising even faster. This exaggerated perception is due to fear. As I describe in my book "False Alarm: the Truth About the Epidemic of Fear," we tend to personalize and hype publically-touted risks, and peanut allergy is a prime example.
Now, along comes Peanut Corp. of America, with its unsanitary conditions, primed for contamination, and worse, its history of knowingly shipping salmonella-laced products to manufacturers. With all the attention this problem has received, it is hard to believe that the contaminated peanut butter traced to the Georgia plant is only a small amount of the total $800 million in annual sales by the peanut butter companies in the United States. Common peanut butter products including Jif, Skippy and Peter Pan are not affected, though peanut butter sales overall are down 25 percent and continue to drop. Keep in mind that though the bacterial outbreak has been linked to just 575 cases and 8 deaths, more than 1,500 products have now been recalled by the FDA. This may be a wise precaution, but it is also important that we in the news media learn to properly context this kind of message so we don't spread unnecessary fear.
I believe it is important that we learn a new language of risk.
It is possible to publically expose shoddy and even criminal practices among our food manufacturers without this leading automatically to the conclusion that all of our food is unsafe. If you still have a recalled peanut cookie or cracker in your closet, and you accidentally bite into it, the chances of you becoming ill from a harbored salmonella is extremely small.
Terrorists of all kind can kill us. But the fear and perceived risk they spread is always far greater than the actual risk.
Dr. Marc Siegel is an internist and associate professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine. He is a FOX News medical contributor and writes a health column for LA Times, where he examines TV and movies for medical accuracy. Dr. Siegel is the author of "False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear"and "Bird Flu: Everything You Need to Know About the Next Pandemic." Read more at www.doctorsiegel.com