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Food Safety And Why The Problem Will Only Get Worse… Or Won’t

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 3, 2006

The Centers for Disease Control estimate that there are 70,000,000 individuals who get foodborne illness each year.

Divide 70 million by 365 days a year and we should be seeing 191,790 cases per day.

However, on a major foodborne illness outbreak, such as the spinach/E. coli outbreak, we barely identify 200 affected people. Most weeks, on all food products we don’t have even 200 known illnesses.

Assuming the CDC number is remotely correct, as the technology advances for identification we can expect massive increases in the reporting of foodborne illness even if the actual incidence of foodborne illness declines.

Of course, this CDC number may be wrong.

Robert A. LaBudde, an Adjunct Professor of Food Science at North Carolina State University and President of Least Cost Formulations, Ltd., a food industry consultancy, published a paper that says the number may be way off. About 80% of the foodborne illness outbreaks the CDC identifies are due to unsubstantiated “unknown causes” and thus may not exist at all.

The paper was done in 1999, so the data is a little old but this section seemed relevant as the industry discusses the issue of food safety. After dismissing the 80% of cases attributed without reason to foodborne illness… :

There are approximately 266 million Americans, so an incidence of 14 million illnesses per year corresponds to one foodborne illness per 20 Americans per year, a believable number. This also corresponds to one illness per about 20,000 meals eaten per year, also a credible number. This is also the level of safety expected from traditional food safety practices. A bout of diarrhea once in 20,000 meals seems an acceptable risk, given that one in 28,500 Americans die from lightning strikes each year.

This CDC study makes it very clear that the US food supply is remarkably safe. Why then such concern for food safety in the press and politics? Well, there’s ‘lies, damned lies and statistics.’ CDC, FDA, USDA, news reporters and even food safety consultants like myself benefit by exaggerating the situation. By concentrating on the large numbers involved, it makes the problem appear large. When the numbers are examined per person (1 mild foodborne illness per 20 years) or per eating occasion (1 mild illness per 20,000 meals), the problem appears in its proper proportions.

The CDC even admits in its assessment that two-thirds of the total disease resulting from these etiological agents are not even foodborne, but instead are transferred by water, person-person contact or other means. Thus even a miraculous improvement in food safety could theoretically only reduce total morbidity by 35% at the most. It’s important to keep all of this in perspective, especially when allocating our public health resources.

Did you know that one in 28,500 Americans die from lightning strikes each year? Certainly we want to make our products safe as can be — but it sort of makes you feel that public health policy is a little wacko, urging the expenditure of limitless funds to achieve small improvements in public health and then doing nothing about major problems.

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