While it certainly is better to play it safe in the imported poisoned grape scare that has spread across America, the reaction somehow seems blown all out of proportion to the evidence.
When traces of cyanide were found in two single grapes imported from Chile, stores across America began pulling the grapes from their shelves. But the fear - even without any indication of other problems - has now spread beyond grapes. Plums, peaches, nectarines, raspberries and other Chilean fruit also have been removed from stores.The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has impounded all Chilean fruit entering the country until exhaustive tests have been run. So far, those tests have not turned up any sign of tampering.
In addition, Canada, Japan, West Germany and Hong Kong have also banned Chilean fruit, even though no tainted fruit of any kind has been found in any of those places.
This near panic shows how vulnerable an entire industry can be to the smallest threat. After anonymous warnings of attempts to poison Chilean imports, traces of cyanide were found in two grapes. Not two boxes, or two bunches, just two individual grapes. Each had been punctured and contained 0.003 milligrams of cyanide. An adult could eat dozens of such grapes and not even get sick.
Chile exports $900 million worth of fruit each year into the United States, but most of that may be lost because of two grapes. After all fruit shipments have been cleared - and there is no reason to think they won't be - the Chilean fruit industry probably will not recover, at least this year.
Yet it's hard to argue with the FDA decision; it must have been difficult. Officials probably knew the threat of real poisoning was slight, but they couldn't take the chance - no matter how remote - that it might be otherwise.
Because so much fruit in U.S. stores comes from Chile in the winter, there may be some scarcity and certainly higher prices.
Fruit or other raw food always seems vulnerable to rumors of health threats, even though the risk may be small or unsubstantiated. Some years ago, an over-stated cancer scare linked to pesticides devastated the entire U.S. cranberry crop. Apples are suffering from the same problem this year.
Chilean officials label the grape poisoning a terrorist act. Whatever the motive, it has been extremely effective. Two little grapes have thrown an entire industry into turmoil.
American consumers should avoid fear and panic and not start throwing out all the fruit in the house. Unless dramatic new evidence surfaces, there's no reason to view every piece of fruit with suspicion or radically change the family diet.