Acceptable risk

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Acceptable risk

Between 1986 and 1996, about 3 million cows with mad cow disease in the United Kingdom made their way to British tables. Ten years later, the first human was infected with the mad cow disease and as of two years ago, 165 patients had died from the disease. The number of new patients continuously decreased through 2000; there was not a single case last year.
Recently, the World Organization for Animal Health announced that the rate of mad cow disease occurring in the United States is two out of 1 million cows. What then are the chances that a cow with the disease goes undetected and is slaughtered in the United States, its meat then exported to Korea and consumed by a Korean who would become ill with mad cow disease?
Let us make a few assumptions. First, in the U.K., 165 people became ill after 3 million cows were eaten. Second, genetically, Koreans are 2.3 times more likely to become ill with the disease. Third, let us assume that per capita, British annual meat consumption is nine times more than Koreans’.
The chance for a Korean to get sick with mad cow disease is maybe one out of 100 million. A Blue House official said it is akin to being hit by lightning the moment a golfer makes a hole-in-one. The question, then, is why mass gatherings protesting against U.S. beef imports have been held on consecutive days and opposition is spreading like wildfire on the Internet. Are soundbytes such as “holes in the brain” so convincing? Are most students and civilians participating in gatherings and petition drives against the imports fools who can’t calculate a simple risk rate?
Not so. Even if the risk is very low, people sometimes respond very sensitively. Risk psychology explains this: People are willing to take risks doing things, such as driving, smoking and skiing undertaken by their own choice. About 20 people die per day on average due to car accidents in Korea. For a lifetime smoker, the rate of getting cancer is tenfold of that of a non-smoker. People tend to think that they’ll be an exception; if an accident happens, they accept it as their fate.
However, people respond sensitively to danger that they did not choose, for example, the possibility of becoming ill with mad cow disease from eating beef. The worry that imported beef may be mislabeled and sold as Korean beef or that restaurants and canteens would supply imported beef without the knowledge of consumers, fans this sense of insecurity. We may not change the risk psychology, but if the government were trustworthy, strange stories would not be so widely accepted. It is lamentable that the government’s communication skills are inferior to anti-U.S. and anti-government forces. 
poemlove@joongang.co.kr
The writer is an editorial writer of
the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Cho Hyun-wook
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