Tom Chivers

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His first book, The AI Does Not Hate You is out now.

October 9, 2019

There was a marvellous story in 2014, which struck me as illustrative of something quite profound in human nature. Portland, the largest city in Oregon in the US Pacific Northwest, dumped 38 million gallons – 172 million litres! – of water out of a reservoir. Why? Because a teenager had been caught on camera peeing in it.

According to this study the average male pees about 220ml – half a pint, give or take – a go. Let’s face it, the teen was probably drunk, so let’s say he managed double that. That means that the water dumped was, roughly, 0.0000003% pee. (Not counting the pee from the animals that presumably pee – and poo, and die – in it on a regular basis, of course.) There was absolutely no way that the pee could have affected health or, for that matter, even been detected, but the administrator responsible felt that customers would be uncomfortable “drinking water that’s been contaminated by some yahoo who decided to pee into a reservoir”.

The last time it happened (it has happened more than once!) the same administrator took the same action, this time ascribing his decision to the “yuck factor”. “I can imagine how many people would be saying ‘I made orange juice with that water this morning’,” he said.

I was reminded of this when I saw a story about food standards, and the things we’ll have to accept if Britain signs a hasty post-Brexit trade deal with the USA. Not just chlorinated chicken – the US rules require that producers adhere to a “Defect Levels Handbook”, which, according to Business Insider, sets out “the maximum number of foreign bodies like maggots, insect fragments and mould that can be in food products before they are put on the market”.

For instance, acceptable levels include “up to 30 insect fragments in a 100-gram jar of peanut butter; as well as 11 rodent hairs in a 25-gram container of paprika; or 3 milligrams of mammalian excreta (typically rat or mouse excrement) per each pound of ginger”.

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Dominic Cummings is no chicken

By Tom Chivers

Barry Gardiner, the shadow Brexit secretary, told Greenpeace’s (admirable) investigative journalism department, Unearthed, that “Their rules specify ‘acceptable levels’ of maggots in orange juice, rat droppings in ginger and hormone levels in beef. The right level should be zero.”

But it isn’t, any more than the “right level” of pee in a reservoir should be zero. There is, absolutely, rodent hair in peanut butter made in the EU, and maggots in EU-regulated orange juice. The fact that the levels are not explicitly limited does not make that any less true – in fact, you could argue that the US approach is both more honest and more stringent than the EU version. At least they have a hard limit on how much rat poo is allowed in a pound of ginger.

It’s also more complicated than that, as a (pro-Brexit, if that matters) former environmental health officer points out. These aren’t maximum permissible levels, but “actionable limits”: i.e. the FDA will automatically prosecute producers if their goods contain more than that level. They may still prosecute, even if the levels are lower, if it is shown that producers are not taking good care.

There are no EU-wide “actionable limits”; countries set their own best practice guidelines. England has a “due diligence” defence: if the food you sell turns out to be contaminated, then if you show that you did your best to avoid contamination, then you are not at fault. It’s fairly similar to the US system.

But fundamentally, the situation is that it is practically and economically impossible to ensure a total absence of contaminants in food. So the grown-up thing to do is to accept that your peanut butter will contain some near-homeopathic levels of rat poo, and that your reservoir will contain some human bodily fluids.

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Brexit is going to drive us all mad

By Ed West

This isn’t to say that a US trade deal won’t lead to lowered standards or increased rat-poo concentrations. Perhaps it will. But it is not that Brexit will mean we all end up eating maggots. We already eat maggots.

The trouble is we’ve all gone a bit Brexit-mad. At least, I think it’s Brexit – perhaps we were mad already, but I am sure it’s worse. For instance: Tim Shipman in the Sunday Times reports that some unnamed minister thinks that the post-no-deal traffic jams in Kent will lead to an upsurge in dogging, as all the bored lorry drivers sitting by the M20 into Dover look for ways of alleviating the tedium. I mean, I guess it’s possible, Minister, although – since only about 1% of lorry drivers are female and presumably most of the rest are straight – I foresee some logistical problems.

It’s not just that. I gather that the Lib Dems are spying on us now, using data bought from supermarkets, census information and the products of their own doorstep canvassing to create a profile of every voter, in a shocking dystopian move that is the exact same as all the other political parties have done. I should say, there may be a real privacy issue here – Labour got in trouble with the Information Commissioner’s Office last year for buying data on a million new and expectant mothers from a baby website, and it could be that the Lib Dems obtained, are holding or are using the data in some non-GDPR-compliant way.

But post-Cambridge Analytica, which, as I understand it, essentially did some very standard psephological profiling and then dressed it up as master manipulation, we all seem to be jumping at shadows. Every bog-standard attempt to work out which voters are more likely to be worth sending leaflets to is now political witchcraft; Dominic Cummings getting user data off the gov.uk website, his fingers twitching the puppet strings.

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How political bias blinds us

By Matthew Goodwin

The whole Brexit thing, to some degree, began with obviously ridiculous stories about the EU – many of them written by our current prime minister – which readers were eager to believe because they confirmed what they already believed. Bendy bananas, extra-small Italian condoms, secret plans to create a European empire, that sort of thing.

Now we’re all at it: unsurprisingly, since it’s not just Brexiters who are prone to motivated reasoning, or overexcitement. Brexit derangement syndrome has everyone panicking about everything: Lib Dem spies, dogging lorries, maggot-infested foods, Boris Johnson the dictator, traitor MPs undermining democracy.

The trouble is that Brexit, especially a no-deal Brexit, is bound to have profound consequences: on prices; on how we transport nuclear materials, and how we do scientific research; people could lose jobs, the economy may slow and the Government be left with less money for things like the NHS. But it becomes very difficult to tease out the crazy from the realistic.

That, though, just makes it all the more important that we try. If we cry wolf at everything, then when we want to say “no, this one actually is really bad”, then people will (reasonably) be less willing to believe us. If we shout about maggoty orange juice and rat hairs in our peanut butter, then it’ll be harder to get people to listen when medicine shortages loom, which they might. Or, to bring us back to the beginning: if you drain the reservoir every time someone pees in it, what will you do when it gets infested with giardia microbes?