Vet's Opinion

Consumers Hear Only Half The Story On Food-Borne Illness


Table of Contents:

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.

This is a back-of-the-napkin approach to calculations, and everyone reading this can substitute their own estimates. It’s interesting to note that 51% of the CDC-estimated outbreaks are related to plant commodities (4,924,877/year); in contrast, the beef-related cases were 6.6%. 

Let me be clear: our goal is zero foodborne illness. My intent isn’t to trivialize human disease; I fully recognize the gravity of the hospitalizations and death resulting from foodborne illnesses. However, to discuss such cases without reference to consumption is irresponsible. 

Of course, any effort by interests to drum up funding support is more effective if they cite 639,640 cases (the numerator) of foodborne illness, without considering the denominator and referencing that only 0.0006% of beef meals resulted in a foodborne disease. It’s also important to note that not all these cases are due to pathogens that came into the final food product source on the meat.

To read more health posts by Mike Apley, DVM, click here

Driving as much news exposure as possible on a single outbreak is the same strategy as publicizing lottery winners to give the impression that winning is common. In both cases, the goal is to give the impression that the event is quite common, when in fact it is not. 

That’s why groups with goals of damaging animal agriculture only use the top half of a fraction or focus so much on single outbreaks. We must help our consumers see the whole picture.      

Mike Apley, DVM, PhD, is a professor in clinical sciences at Kansas State University in Manhattan.


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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 ( 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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What's Vet's Opinion?

Three top U.S. veterinarians provide tightly focused discussion of specific beef cattle disease and welfare topics.


Dave Sjeklocha

Dave Sjeklocha, DVM, is operations manager of animal health and welfare for Cattle Empire, LLC, Satanta, KS.

Mike Apley

Mike Apley, DVM, PhD, is a professor in clinical sciences at Kansas State University in Manhattan.

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