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Don't Be Scared of Food: Are We Being Needlessly Hysterical About Food Safety?

Despite all the media hype, there's little to actually suggest we're facing a major food safety crisis.
 
 
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There have been all kinds of scary headlines and stories about food safety problems. The most recent was a front-page story in the New York Times a few weeks ago about a young dance instructor who wound up paralyzed from the waist down after a bout of illness from E.coli O157:H7 contained in a hamburger she ate. The story led to so much public upset that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was prompted to issue a statement saying the case was "unacceptable and tragic."

Shortly after that, victims of foodborne illness were received by Obama administration officials at the White House for a high-profile photo session.

Besides health care reform, new food safety legislation moving through Congress (passed by the House, about to be voted on by the Senate) is billed as the most urgent consumer proposal in the Congress. It’s supposed to reduce the scary headlines about contaminated peanut butter, pistachios, ground beef, spinach, and other foods that have embarrassed the public health establishment over the last three years.

Unlike health care reform, food safety legislation, which is designed to give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration more power to monitor food producers and institute recalls, is heavily supported by an array of consumer organizations and health industry professionals, not to mention bureaucrats and legislators. President Obama has indicated he’s ready to sign whatever Congress passes.

But in all the handwringing, there’s been very little data presented by public health officials to document that we have a worsening problem with foodborne illness. Indeed, when you review the testimony provided by the FDA and other experts to the House in connection with the legislation that passed there over the summer (HR 2749), no one even tried to make a statistical case that we have a worsening problem with foodborne illness. The best you’ll find is FDA food safety adviser Michael R. Taylor, saying, "Every year, millions of our friends and neighbors in the United States suffer from foodborne illness, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized, and thousands die."

The reason FDA experts haven’t provided more convincing data is that it doesn’t exist. Indeed, if you examine the data on foodborne illness, you find a different sort of crisis—a crisis of credibility, based on ineffective and incomplete data gathering and investigation. And some of what is there actually shows declines in rates of foodborne illness.

The bastion of data on foodborne illness is the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the data it pushes the public to consider as most relevant is a study scientists conducted more than ten years ago, and published in 1999. The study estimates that 76 million Americans are sickened by foodborne illness each year, with 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. (That’s the data the FDA’s Michael Taylor was quoting from.)

Three things are most notable about this data. First, it is old. Not only is the paper containing its findings more than ten years old, but the data it draws on goes back to as far as 1948.

Second, it is based entirely on what can only be termed wild estimates of the real situation. The number of reported illnesses are miniscule in comparison with the 76 million estimate. Even allowing for the multiplier effect -- the likelihood that for every reported illness, there may be between ten and forty times that number not reported -- the numbers don’t obviously add up to the millions projected by the CDC. Consider that in 2007, the CDC reported a total 21,183 cases of foodborne illness, based on reports from states and localities around the country. Multiplying that by 40, you still only get 847,000 illnesses, a far cry from 76 million.

 
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