Don't save us from sushi

Posted: Jan 30, 2001 12:00 AM
The state of Massachusetts has outlawed sushi. New guidelines that went into effect on Jan. 1 require restaurants using raw or undercooked meat, poultry, fish or eggs to note this on their menus, along with a description of the illnesses that such foods can cause. How appetizing. As a slightly reformed health nut, I wish to concede that I do understand the urge to banish all possibility of illness. I've been cross-examining waiters about raw eggs for years. But even those well-advanced in health mania should stop to ask whether laws like these -- only sushi that has been frozen or cooked (cooked!) may legally be served in Massachusetts restaurants -- are entirely healthy themselves. In the first place, most food poisoning does not originate in restaurants at all but in homes, as a consequence of poor food handling. But second, and more important, is this: How many risks should individuals be permitted to take? When the state intervenes to protect us from some perceived harm, it can only do so at the expense of some of our freedom. Should bungi jumping be illegal? What about sky diving? Motorcycles are notoriously dangerous. So is mountain climbing. What about circuses? As a sushi lover, I think the very minuscule risk that raw fish might make me sick is worth taking. I certainly do not want the state deciding that the risk is too great. In Japan, one type of sushi is known to be fatal in rare cases -- yet it is considered a delicacy. In an essay in the City Journal, Roger Scruton notes that in England today it is illegal to permit your unaccompanied child to walk down a country lane for fear of kidnapping. Friendship Heights, Md., has outlawed smoking even out of doors. And in Fairfax, Va., a mother was reprimanded by children's protective services for allowing her 6-year-old to play in the backyard without supervision (the mother was in the house). We are health and safety mad. We line the playgrounds with foam rubber, ban seesaws and monkey bars, and swath our children in helmets and kneepads and elbow pads. Even kids sledding in the yard are admonished to wear helmets. We drench our counters with anti-bacterial spray and comb the newspapers for the latest advances in cancer research. The evening news nearly always opens with a tease about some new health breakthrough -- a new drug, a new gene found or, most often, a new risk identified. Are these sensible precautions or the signs of an increasingly timid nation? In the process of attempting to protect ourselves from every conceivable risk, we elevate physical well-being to the level of worship. Smoking and eating saturated fats are sins. Exercise and salad are sacraments. Fit and handsome men and women are our gods; doctors our high priests. What rarely seems to be addressed is the question: What is the purpose of physical well-being? Teddy Roosevelt was all for fitness, but not as an end itself. He and the Victorians believed in physical fitness for its character-building potential as much as for its health-giving benefits. And speaking of character, why is it that our society neglects some habits and choices that are clearly linked to longevity? Marriage, for example, and having fewer than 10 sexual partners in a lifetime adds years to one's life. Avoiding risky sexual behaviors -- let's not list them -- is also an excellent way to prolong life. Yet the health police never exhort us to be sexually continent and faithful. Religious observance is also linked with longevity for reasons that are not scientifically quantifiable but can be guessed. Being knit into a community, feeling useful into old age, being part of something outside oneself, avoiding health-endangering activities like excessive drinking or drug abuse -- all of these probably contribute to the demonstrably longer (10 years) and healthier lives enjoyed by those with religious commitment. But the health nuts are selective. They never mention the documented link between abortion and breast cancer, or the dangers of promiscuity. The risk of tobacco is overblown, while the dangers of homosexuality are understated. Since the nannies really don't know what's good for us, morally or physically, let's not let them save us from sushi.