Sunday, January 23, 2011
MISLEADING STATISTICS ON FOODBORNE ILLNESS
One of the many Mark Twain sayings that I like is: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." True - statistics are often misleading. You can interpret and use them in a variety of ways to make a point. That also applies to statistics about foodborne illness. A call-in question during my KQED Forum radio interview on Friday, made me very aware of this. But it is difficult to explain complicated issues well in a 10-20 second response on air (particularly if the show is live, and the question catches you "cold.") So I am doing it here.
The number of reported illnesses caused by one or other food or food group (such as produce, dairy, seafood, meat, grains) depends on several factors. They include:
• The contaminants that it carries
• Whether these contaminants are or are not checked for by the industry and government inspectors
• The food's popularity (how widely it is distributed, eaten or used as an ingredient in other food products)
• The point of contamination (farm, factory, distributor, transporter, retailer, restaurant, and so on).
The questioner was particularly concerned because I said that raw vegetables and fruits cause a large number of illnesses every year. They do - because most Americans and Canadians eat them, most of the contaminants enter at an early point (the farm), several bacteria are now tested for on raw produce, and some of the huge fresh produce companies distribute their products nationwide.
Yes, your lettuce or spinach salad may not be as deadly - strictly speaking as say, as raw oysters or sprouted seeds. But these foods cause a far smaller number of illnesses in the U.S. and Canada, simply because only a small percentage of people eat them. Raw produce causes many times more. But for the stated reasons.