This morning’s Los Angeles Times opinion page features a rare treat in our nation’s ongoing food safety debate: A healthy serving of common sense. Pullitzer Prize-winning Times critic David Shaw takes on mad cow disease, dietary acrylamide, the overblown worry over mercury in fish, and assorted other needless food fears. In a 1500-word masterpiece, Shaw rightly dismisses Americans’ growing but flawed sense — fed by activist-driven food scares — that their next bite could be their last. “Life’s too short,” he writes, “to fret about everything we put in our mouths … the problem with virtually all these food safety scares [is that] scientific findings seem to fluctuate almost daily, and confusion and conflict reign supreme. Individually, the science behind many of the scares is dubious; cumulatively, they could be as paralyzing as they are discouraging.”

Here’s Shaw on the health risk from eating French fries and other foods high in acrylamide:

Lorelei Mucci of the Harvard School of Public Health … told me [that] the cancer risk for the average person, in a lifetime, would increase from 30% — the risk we all face — to 30.01%. The ‘increase’ might actually be even smaller, or not exist, Mucci said, since “we don’t really know enough yet about how the human body metabolizes acrylamide.”

Shaw on supposed dangers from drinking caffeine:

[C]affeine has been variously reported to cause cancer, to inhibit conception, to induce miscarriage, to cause birth defects, to increase cholesterol, to trigger irregular heartbeats, to aggravate ulcers and to increase urination.

But caffeine has also been reported to help people lose weight, improve hand-eye coordination, increase tolerance for exercise, promote clearer thinking, diminish drowsiness, make children more attentive in school and make adults less likely to suffer bronchial asthma – or to commit suicide. And Mucci says caffeine is also known to ‘lower the risk of colorectal cancer’.

Shaw on the trumped-up risk of cancer from PCBs in farmed salmon:

[T]he risk goes up by one in 100,000 if you eat that 8-ounce farmed salmon fillet once a month for 70 years … if everyone in the United States ate one farm-raised salmon fillet a month, that would result in 3,000 more cancer deaths over 70 years. [emphasis added]

Of course, 43 annual cancer deaths (even in a population of 281 million Americans) is unfortunate. But it’s a minor tragedy when compared to the ability of Omega-3 fatty acids — found in salmon — to reduce the risk of breast cancer in women, prostate cancer in men, and various other reproductive-organ cancers.

David Shaw’s column should be required reading for the scientifically challenged Environmental Working Group, the mad-cow scammers at the Organic Consumers Association, and (of course) the food scare artisans at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Shaw saves a special barb for them, and we couldn’t have said it better ourselves:

Eating can be — should be — one of the great pleasures in life … Why should we let others, no matter how well meaning, make mealtime feel like a round of Russian roulette?

Folks like those at the Center for Science in the Public Interest — the same outfit that called fettuccine Alfredo “a heart attack on a plate” — have warned us off popcorn, hamburgers, kung pao chicken, submarine sandwiches and chiles rellenos, among other things. Next stop? Tangerines? (You could choke on the seeds.)