Tuesday, February 13, 2007



According to a
report on CBS news, today (specifically, on "The Evening News with Katie Couric"), there are "75 million Americans with food-borne illnesses each year". That's a lot. (Is it really an accurate number? -- see below**!)

CBS, quoting
Dick Durban (the second ranking Senate Democrat), points the blame in part on too many agencies being responsible for food safety. The CBS report suggests that there are so many agencies, each responsible for different elements of food safety, that some aspects of safety fall through the cracks.

In one somewhat dubious assertion, they suggest that too large a percentage of money is going to unnecessary protection of meat. Citing Mike Taylor, a former food safety official, they say that because most food safety money — 80 percent — goes to the USDA, which visually inspects meat in slaughterhouses, it leaves insufficient budget to protect the millions of Americans who actually get sick from the invisible germs in produce.

It seems more likely that the current money allocated for meat safety is well spent (to the extent that people are not getting sick from meat), and that it's not the percentage allocation of money that goes to meat safety which is the problem -- we probably need every cent and more -- it's the lack of additional money to protect produce and other foods that needs to be addressed.

It's the opposite of the situation in the old joke:

A man has dinner for the first time at a friend's house. Every ten minutes the man claps his hands three times.

"What are you doing?" the man says.

"This keeps the elephants away," says the friend.

"What??? There are no elephants around here."

"See," the friend says. "it's working!"

In this case, the 80% may really BE keeping the "elephants" (sickness from bad meat) away.

Senator Durbin is introducing a bill to create a single agency to oversee food safety. That should help. But, unless it is also creating a larger pool of resources dedicated to food safety, it may only be addressing a part of the problem. (75 million is a lot of sick people!)

**Is it really an accurate number? Yes:

According to the CDC:

How many cases of foodborne disease are there in the United States?

An estimated 76 million cases of foodborne disease occur each year in the United States. The great majority of these cases are mild and cause symptoms for only a day or two. Some cases are more serious, and CDC estimates that there are 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths related to foodborne diseases each year. The most severe cases tend to occur in the very old, the very young, those who have an illness already that reduces their immune system function, and in healthy people exposed to a very high dose of an organism.

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