Media people love juicy data suggesting an untended-to crisis, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has the perfect juicy data for anyone wanting to write about the supposed crisis in food safety. 


The scary data go like this: every year, millions of Americans are victims of food-borne illness–48 million become sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. 


The media are attracted to this data like bees to honey. Over just the last few days, two prominent food writers have used it as the basis of articles attacking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for not doing enough to solve our food-safety crisis. 

Barry Estabrook, author of the highly acclaimed book Tomatoland, wrote a scathing article on the site ONEARTH, attacking the FDA. 


The article, “The FDA Is Out to Lunch”, begins with an example of an elderly man who died a miserable death from eating cantaloupe contaminated with listeria, and then states: “The 2011 listeria outbreak was not an isolated case. The United States is experiencing what amounts to an epidemic of food-borne illnesses. According to the CDC, there are about 48 million cases of food poisoning a year, leading to more than 128,000 hospitalizations and more than 3,000 deaths…the toll from food-borne bacteria is mind-numbing.” 


Another prominent food writer, Tom Laskawy, executive director of the Food & Environment Reporting Network, picked up on the Estabrook attack, in an article on Grist, “Food Safety Fail: Why Isn’t the Agency in Charge of Keeping Us Safe Succeeding?”


“As Estabrook reports, we’re in the midst of a food poisoning epidemic. ‘According to the CDC, there are about 48 million cases of food poisoning a year, leading to more than 128,000 hospitalizations and more than 3,000 deaths,’ he writes. To put that last statistic in perspective, it’s the equivalent of a 9/11 tragedy every year. You’d think the government (and the American people) might want to do something to stop it.” 

I need to point out at this point that not only are Estabrook and Laskawy highly credible food and agriculture writers, but they aren’t the first to accept the CDC data as fact and use it to argue vehemently we have a food safety crisis. I used the data in my book, The Raw Milk Revolution, to suggest that illnesses associated with raw milk are miniscule by comparison to the overall crisis in food safety suggested by the same CDC data.

As readers of this blog know, I’m not a big supporter of the FDA. But after studying the CDC’s crisis-epidemic data, I’ve come to believe it’s highly flawed. There are lots of things to attack the FDA about, such as its absence of effective enforcement actions against corporate abusers of food-safety regulations, but its failure to solve the “epidemic” of food safety illnesses isn’t one of them, in my judgment.  

My reasoning: As seductive as the data is, it’s difficult to examine it on even a cursory basis and not conclude it is full of holes. Here are just a few of the most obvious ones:


* Most of the illnesses that comprise the CDC’s estimates aren’t from the most common pathogens–the ones that made people sick in the widely known cantaloupe, peanut butter, spinach, egg, or ground beef outbreaks. Those illnesses were caused by listeria, salmonella, campylobacter, and E.coi O157:H7, yet the CDC says 38.4 million of the estimated 48 million illnesses (three-fourths of its estimate) were caused by “unknown agents.” 


Even the CDC had to admit that the estimate of 38.4 million illnesses from unknown agents was, shall we say, sketchy. “Because you can’t ‘track’ what isn’t yet identified, estimates for this group of agents started with the health effects or symptoms that they are most likely to cause—acute gastroenteritis.” Mind you, CDC didn’t track the number of cases of stomach illness, it estimated them, and then attributed most of them to food-borne illness–a few leaps of faith here. 


The estimate has raised eyebrows within the food safety community, where one expert stated in a comment published by the CDC that the notion of 38.4 million “unspecified” food-borne illnesses “probably overestimates the occurrence of illness caused by unspecified agents…”


* Okay, you say, that still leaves nearly 10 million cases of food-borne illness (out of the original 48 million total). Not so simple. More than half of those illnesses are from something called norovirus. That is generally an upset stomach, but most often it’s spread by people, not by food. A food handler carrying norovirus who doesn’t wash his or her hands can spread the disease. Similarly, one person with norovirus coughing or breathing onto another person can spread the disease. 


So, when all is said and done, we’re left with 3.9 million illnesses from the known food-borne pathogens. Less than 10 per cent of the 48 million the CDC broadcasts, and which the media eagerly pick up on. 

And remember, even this 3.9 million is still just an estimate. The number of reported cases of food-borne illness has varied between 21,000 and 27,000 over the last decade–a tiny fraction of the 3.9 million estimate, and an even tinier fraction of the 48 million estimate. Each of the highly publicized illnesses involving cantaloupe, peanut butter, eggs, beef, and so forth is included in the relatively small number of reported illnesses. 

While the CDC estimate correctly assumes that the majority of food-borne illnesses–certainly very mild cases–aren’t reported to public health authorities, is the total really 3.9 million?  No one knows, and that gets back to the original problem: If we don’t know the dimensions of the problem, then who’s to say the huge estimates are off? After all, this is the august CDC making the estimates. 


And, indeed, many people use the estimates of illnesses-hospitalizations-deaths to further their favorite agendas. The food writers Estabrook and Laskawy used the estimate to argue that the FDA isn’t resolving the food-borne illness “epidemic.” I used the estimates to argue that data on raw milk illnesses aren’t out of line in the scheme of things. The FDA itself used the same data as its main argument to convinced Congress to pass the Food Safety Modernization Act–there’s a crisis and we need more money and more power to resolve it. 


I can see why government policy makers would want to hold onto such data to justify ever larger budgets. But those of us in the media should be more responsible. That’s because the implications of the data are huge. We may be encouraging ever more resources to fight a problem that is bigger in the imagination than in real life, and in the process, failing to allocate resources to matters that deserve them–for example, like investigating further the dangers of genetically modified foods and of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, and the potential benefits of fermented foods and good bacteria…among many others.