The fervent truth seekers over at PolitiFact.com have honed in on the recent claim by Georgia Congressman, Jack Kingston, that the U.S. has "a food supply that’s 99.99 percent safe" and therefore the federal government may not be justified in funding the recently passed Food Safety Modernization Act, which tightens food safety rules and gives more power to the FDA.
A food supply that is 99.99 percent safe sure sounds good, but is it a true statement? Turns out, not so much.
Here is how Mr. Kingston arrived at that 99.99 percent figure:
They took the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest estimate for the number of food-borne illnesses each year and divided it by the number of times people in the U.S. eat each year.
The CDC said that in 2011, just under 48 million people will contract a food-borne illness.
There are about 310 million people in the U.S. If they eat three times a day, that’s 339.45 billion meals. And 48 million is roughly 0.01 percent of that.
Hence, 99.99 percent. But here’s the problem: his figure is a rough measure of the odds that an individual’s next meal will make them sick, not whether the U.S. has a safe food supply.
As pointed out by PolitiFact:
We talked to Elaine Scallan, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Public Health who formerly worked for the CDC. She did research on which the CDC results are based.
Kingston’s calculation measured the risk that your next meal will make you sick. But it is "definitely not a good indicator of the safety of our food supply," Scallan said.
Each time you eat a meal, you take that same risk again. Over time, that risk adds up, Scallan said.
Robert Scharff, a professor at Ohio State University and a former economist with the Food and Drug Administration, calculated that food-borne illness costs the U.S. $152 billion annually.
His report described food-borne illness as "a large problem that deserves the attention of policymakers." He also noted in an e-mail interview with AJC PolitiFact Georgia that Kingston’s approach only covered the risk of eating a single meal.
Other criticism was more blunt. Barbara Kowalcyk, director of food safety for the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, expressed similar concerns and said Kingston’s measure "just doesn’t make sense."
New York University professor Marion Nestle, a well-regarded food safety and nutrition expert, summed it up best: "Isn’t 48 million people getting sick or dying unnecessarily worth doing something about?" She certainly thinks so, and I must agree.