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What’s Really Behind the Hysteria Over Food Safety? It’s Definitely Not Scary Data

By David E. Gumpert

From the Community Blogs

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 food-borne 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 hand-wringing, there’s been very little data presented by public health officials to document that we have a worsening problem with food-borne 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 food-borne 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 food-borne 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 food-borne 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 food-borne illness.

The bastion of data on food-borne 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 food-borne 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 food-borne 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.

Not only that, but the 2007 data of reported illnesses is down 15% from the 25,035 reported in 2001. The Center for Science and the Public Interest, a nonprofit organization that also monitors food-borne illnesses, reported last year that it counted 168,000 illnesses over the 17-year period 1990-2006. That averages out to fewer than 10,000 per year.

The problem here isn’t that the CDC is manipulating the data, but rather that the data is incomplete. Public health officials will tell you that states categorize illnesses differently, and vary widely in their aggressiveness in seeking out information. The Center for Science and the Public Interest in its 2008 report on food-borne illness, reported that “nearly half of all states do not follow national standards for tracking disease outbreaks. Those gaps are particularly troubling given the numerous recent large outbreaks.”

So what’s behind the hysteria on food-borne illness? Clearly, part of it has to do with the dramatic cases being reported of individuals who have suffered serious long-term repercussions. While the vast majority of food-borne illnesses involve mild gastrointestinal problems that last just a few days, the serious cases obviously capture public attention, and stir up nervousness, as well they should. They are tragic.

But there’s another factor at work here as well: a drive to broadly expand the powers of the FDA. As one example, it will have the power under the House legislation recently passed to require highly detailed written food plans from all food producers, including the smallest makers of artisan cheese and meats. The owner of a two-person California maker of specialty cheeses, fruits, and nuts, told me that creating such a plan would require about 100 hours of upfront work, and then two hours a day to be kept up to date. Failure to comply could result in a fine of $10,000 per infraction per day, this for a business doing less than $100,000 of annual revenues.

In addition, the FDA could inspect the records of all food producers at will, instead of the current requirement of having strong reason to believe a problem exists, or obtaining a search warrant. It will also be able to quarantine large areas of the country if it believes a serious source of pathogens exist, and shut down all food shipping in the process. And it will obtain substantial additional budget for inspection personnel.

Before requiring such an infringement on individual rights, and added costs for doing business, it would seem that the FDA should at the least put together data showing the nature of the food-borne-illness problem at hand, and to what extent its new powers will solve the problem. It could be that more targeted changes, costing less in funding for new personnel and foregone rights, could be quite effective in reducing food-borne illnesses.

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