A warning label about a silica-gel packet provokes anxiety, curiosity, and, finally, disbelief.
Do Not Eat the Silica Gel.
The warning on the pre-cooked bacon-bit package practically screams at me. In large lettering, Caps For Emphasis, it is, clearly, Serious. As with any warning of danger, it makes me a bit nervous. My thoughts dart here and there.
First, of course, and most importantly — what about me? What will happen if I eat the silica gel by mistake? Will it swell horribly in my stomach? Will it rupture my intestines, killing me almost instantly and yet dreadfully painfully? Or will it merely poison me slowly?
But my sense of self-preservation, while reasonably high, is not all-consuming, at least not while faced with an as-yet unopened, pre-cooked bacon-bit package. Whatever danger lurks inside is still, well, inside, while I am, happily, safely outside. So my reptile brain (always alert to imminent danger) gives way to my analytical brain (always curious as to what lies behind the things I read).
This must, I reason, be a business-lawyerly response to unacceptably high potential liability. Whatever ill effects might arise from eating the silica gel — whether horrible discomfort or sudden/lingering death — the danger is clearly significant enough that the company producing and packaging the pre-cooked bacon bits wants no part of it. The imagined courtroom drama is worthy of Grisham.
Lawyer for the plaintiffs: The company is clearly at fault. They put the disagreeable/deadly silica gel in the pre-cooked bacon-bit package.
Lawyer for the defendants: Your honour, we warned them not to eat it. We even used Capital Letters! What more could any reasonable company do?
Now my reptile brain stirs again. After all, if the potential liability is high enough to warrant this warning, the silica gel must be not just mighty and terrible in its effects, but also easily mistaken for pre-cooked bacon bits and, therefore, correspondingly likely to be ingested. Yikes — that is scary!
Slightly spooked, I toy with the idea of quietly chucking this pre-cooked bacon-bit package — maybe even cooking my own bacon bits. But the actual sunk cost of purchase and the imagined mess on the stovetop decide me against it. There is also just a splash of curiosity. Will I be discerning enough to distinguish the silica gel from the pre-cooked bacon bits?
Thus it is that, rather than sprinkling the desired number of pre-cooked bacon bits onto my salad, I upend the entire package onto the cutting board. It’s sort of exciting, really, playing with this inestimable danger that has caught the attention of corporate lawyers. How long will it take me to identify the silica gel? I feel quite daring-do.
The entire contents of the pre-cooked bacon-bit package dump out: maybe fifty grey-brown chunks that might charitably be mistaken for bacon bits (pre-cooked variety). In the middle lies a single white packet, with stitching around the edges, roughly twice the size of any bacon bit and clearly labelled on both sides: Silica gel. Do not eat.
They’re kidding me, right? This clunky packet is the stealthy silica gel, the poison cleverly masquerading as salad garnish, the nefariously appetizing chemical I might eat by accident? Come on! This is the same silica-gel packet I find inside a new suitcase or camera box. There’s no sport here!
Neither, of course, is there any significant danger, any significant potential liability. I guess that’s easy for me to say: it’s not my money/job that’s at risk if the lack of a warning causes someone to eat the silica gel along with the pre-cooked bacon bits, and suffer dire consequences therefrom. But come on!
Our sophisticated world presents us with complex hazards, many of which require special knowledge to identify and assess. In this environment we need clear, meaningful and reasonable communication. Does our legal system help us by encouraging companies to focus on the easily identifiable but vanishingly small probability of harm from ingesting an obviously disposable preservative? Or should it put its energy into penalizing a higher probability risk, like true negligence in food handling; or apply its considerable discernment to identifying misleading and harmful bibble-babble about food value?
Like the neighbours of the boy who cried ‘Wolf‘, and like our legal system, I only have so much energy to give to dire warnings, so much discernment to distinguish silly from substantive. I sure hate to waste either on silica gel in pre-cooked bacon bits.