Sunday, December 23, 2007

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Does the United States truly have the "world's safest food supply"?

This being a quiet news day (no recalls announced this morning, for a change), I decided to delve into some numbers. Here's what I found.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there were 12.71 cases of Campylobacter and 14.81 cases of Salmonella per 100,000 people in the United States in 2006.
  • The Food Standards Agency reports a total of 53,052 lab-reported cases of food-borne diseases for the year 2005. This translates to 88.4 cases per 100,00 people in the UK that year. The numbers for 2006 are not yet available.
  • Overall, the European Union (EU) suffered 5710 outbreaks of food-borne disease in 2006, 0r 1.16 per 100,000 people. This total includes more than 175,000 cases of Campylobacter infection, and more than 160,000 cases of Salmonella, for a total of 68.2 cases due to these two pathogens per 100,000 people.
  • Canada reported 106 food-borne disease outbreaks in 2005, or 0.35 per 100,000 people. There were 19.6 reported cases of Salmonella and 29.9 reported cases of Campylobacter per 100,000 people.
A first look at the numbers seems to support the US claim of having the world's safest food supply. But there is another complication. The great majority of cases of food-borne disease are never reported.

Official government statistics are based on reported incidents. This is not a reliable number, because it is based only on those victims who visited a doctor or emergency room. A visit to a doctor's office can be an expensive proposition in the U.S. for the more than 15% of the population that is without health insurance. And co-pay policies and waiting times in countries with universal health care affect a person's decision go to the "bother" of seeking medical attention for what is a relatively mild illness. Country-to-country comparisons of unadjusted food-borne disease statistics are misleading.

In 1999, US researchers estimated that more than one person in every four (more than 25%) suffered an incident of food-borne illness each year, for a total estimate of 76 million cases annually. That same year, British researchers estimated that country's annual food-borne illness rate at one person in every five (20%). Until more recent data demonstrate that this relative performance has changed, the US accurately cannot claim the title of "world's safest food supply".


  1. All the lies that are fed to us... I commend you on such a short post on the subject. ;-)

    Seriously though, it's disturbing the amount of food poisoning cases that go unreported. Just as disturbing (to me, anyhow) are the number of people who don't know the symptoms. But the worst thing is the ignorance in those emergency rooms and doctor's offices.

    I was recently fairly sick and ended up at the doctor. My own doctor wasn't in on my first visit, so I ended up seeing the on-call doctor. I had to pretty much beg them to do a stool test, even after the doctor himself suggested I might have salmonella.

    Try getting someone in the ER to agree to administering such a test, let alone rely on an ER doctor to suggest one in the first place.

    One of my neighbors spent several days in the ER before it ever occurred to anyone to test her. Meanwhile, she was being pumped full of antibiotics "as a precaution."

    It's no wonder that so many cases go unreported.

  2. I meant several days in the hospital, not the ER. I type too fast sometimes. :-)

  3. where are your references or sources of information??

  4. These data are all taken from government web sites and from peer-reviewed published journal articles. Check, for example, for some of the US data.


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