The toxic tort litigation directed against the chemical industry has been propelled by more than just the proclivity of the rat zymbal gland to turn cancerous, the ease with which associations can be generated by dredging epidemiological data, and the scent of deep pockets. Essential to the success of the litigation has been the widely held belief that humankind's attempt to harness nature and to bend it to our will is both morally wrong and unacceptably dangerous; and that Mother Nature will have her revenge. So imagine the enthusiasm of the plaintiffs' bar as it collectively ponders suits against "industrial food" aka Big Food.
Eating, whether a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner or an energy bar before a workout, is rarely just about filling up on chemical fuel and essential nutrients. Instead food comes garnished with a variety of religious, ethical and cultural traditions and, especially, intentions; whether of recognizing blessings or pursuing good health and a long life. Mix in our tendency to perceive that which is manmade as inherently riskier and it's easy to understand why the ad campaigns of food companies no longer suggest that they've fooled Mother Nature.
Yet science marches on and Mother Nature is not only found out but fooled as well. Synthetic butter is small potatoes compared to what's happening these days. Who could have imagined just a few years ago that today we'd be talking about genetically engineering bacteria and then eating them by the millions in order to tame inflammation, to wage wars against pathogenic bacteria in our gut and to ward off cancer? And when it comes to pathogens who back then could have hoped to believe that a particular outbreak of food borne illness could be quickly traced to the chanterelle sauce served on the fourth day of a conference? And yet now we can.
Thus the convergence of two trends, 1) the ancient worry about the fruit of knowledge once unleashed being beyond our ability to control it (especially when it's the staff of life that's being re-engineered as a result of that knowledge), and, 2) the ability to identify the source of food borne illness (including so-called obesogens, diabetogens and the like), means we're headed for another era in which uncertainty and fear runs parallel to an era of rapid discovery and unsettling change; and uncertain times are when the plaintiffs' bar thrives because courts are often bewildered by the science and prone to admit simple, comforting narratives with easily villified bad guys and readily lionized good guys. That's what drove the chemical litigation and we suspect that'll be the plan for food litigation.
We plan to cover the litigation, both the science behind it and the law that decides it, via Twitter. Our first tweet: "Don't eat the chanterelle sauce, whatever that is" can be found here.