Vet's Opinion

Consumers Hear Only Half The Story On Food-Borne Illness

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When activist groups and media sensationalize food-bone illness outbreaks without providing the context of the overwhelming safety of the U.S. food supply, they do a disservice to consumers, government and industry.

Did you think you left the tyranny of fractions behind in school? In truth, numerators and denominators still drive our view of the world, as well as the legislation and regulations that are changing our way of life today.

Nowhere are the two basic components of a fraction more important than in evaluating foodborne illness. To understand foodborne illness, we must evaluate the number of cases in relation to the exposed population over a period of time. The illnesses (number of people) are the numerator, and the exposure (number of meals consumed) becomes the denominator over the specified time period.

In March 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a summary of foodborne disease outbreaks from 1998-2008. During this period, 13,352 foodborne disease outbreaks were reported in the U.S., causing 271,974 illnesses. Of these outbreaks, 37% (4,887) had an implicated food vehicle and a single causative agent.

In this paper, the CDC estimates the total burden of foodborne illness due to each commodity based on reported outbreaks and adjusted for factors such as under-reporting. The low end of the initial estimate range was established by outbreaks where the source could be attributed to a specific commodity. The high end consisted of complex outbreaks where multiple commodities could have been involved; therefore, the outbreak was attributed to each of the commodities.

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From 1998-2008, the CDC estimates there were 639,640 foodborne illnesses/year due to beef, including bacterial, chemical, and viral contamination. We’ll use this as our numerator. For a denominator, we’ll take the low value of reported U.S beef consumption from 2002 through 2008, which is 27 billion lbs. consumed. These data are available on the USDA Economic Research Service website.

Now we need to adjust for the amount of beef consumed per meal. It could be anything from 1-lb. steaks to the amounts contained in a beef hotdog or deli meat servings. If we pick .025 lb. as an average beef serving, that calculates to a total of 108 billion exposures/year. Our estimate of the number of beef-associated illnesses expressed as a percentage of beef “exposures” is the product of 639,640 divided by 108 billion, which is 0.0000059. This can also be expressed as 0.0006 %.

Since a percent is one in 100, this equates to a foodborne illness estimate for beef of 1 foodborne illness for every 166,667 beef meals. To look at it another way, during an average 80-year life expectancy, averaging 1 beef meal/day, that is 29,200 beef meals in a lifetime. Thus, our final estimate becomes one foodborne illness in six lifetimes.

Discuss this Blog Entry 2

on Apr 17, 2014

Good article. Also the seriousness of the illness needs to be discussed. Upset stomachs, vomiting, and diarrhea that last less than a day or two are not serious illnesses in most cases and often can be attributed to other causes. Even the definition of outbreak really overinflates the seriousness of the problem. Most hospitals do not take serious investigations of the cause of these gastrointestinal illnesses. When one has a gastrointestinal illness it is almost instinctive to say "it must have been something I ate." Also the CDC needs funding and campaigns such as flu shots and foodborne illness (http://www.cdc.gov/features/solvingoutbreaks/) encourage people not to be objective. How many people (most) will say I had the flu instead of saying I had a cold? How many will say I ate a steak instead of saying I ate a leftover steak that sat in the car during a movie, then refrigerated for two days? I don't want to minimize people that are ill, but somehow we survived the 30s-90s with a lot less regulation. Do you remember scraping the mold off of jelly and eating what was underneath?

William Sommerwerck (not verified)
on Jun 8, 2014

As someone who got an 800+ on his Math SAT, I have to point out that 0.025 pounds is an awfully small serving -- 2/5 of an ounce! That's about the amount in a bouillon cube, isn't it?

I think you're missing an important point. Yes, it's important that consumers understand that numbers alone do not tell the whole story, that they have to be weighted by the seriousness of the illness.

Isn't the real issue that food gets contaminated at all? It seems it's almost always the fault of the food processor.

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