Enough with the foodborne illness scare-mongering already

Pax Arcana

Like me, you’ve probably noticed a rise in the frequency of stampeding mobs storming out of grocery stores — spooked en masse at the mere sight of a loose plum tomato.

The reason for this hysteria is the deadly salmonella outbreak that will almost certainly KILL YOUR CHILDREN!!!!

Sorry. I’ve been watching the news.

The real reason for the hysteria is that an outbreak of foodborne illness is like a fastball down the middle for many media outlets. Food safety scares combine equal parts mortal fear and scientific ignorance into a steaming jazzy cocktail of ratings, baby, ratings.

Obviously TV news — especially local news — plays a huge role in all this. But the webbernets are just as bad.

For example, Consumerist (a site dearly beloved by Pax Arcana) recently posted a story under the headline “Salmonella: Eight Common Foodborne Illnesses and their Symptoms.” The post itself links to another site, CalorieLab, and promises a look at the “most prevalent” foodborne illnesses and their symptoms.

The CalorieLab article promises a review of “The big 8 foodborne illnesses.”

Fair enough, and some of the illnesses profiled are both common and preventable. Salmonella is an easy one. Campylobacter — the thing that makes you pee out of your butt if you fail to wash and cook your chicken properly — is another good one.

So why include botulism, mad cow disease, and trichinosis? You have a better chance of catching John McCain at a Vietnamese restaurant than catching any of these.

Here’s what CalorieLab has to say about botulism:

While many cases of botulism are from causes other than food, about 15 percent of the around 145 cases reported each year come from a food outbreak.

I’m no mathematician, but two MIT professors I contacted agreed that at that rate, about 21.75 people get botulism from food each year. In other words, you have a better chance of being drafted by the NBA — especially if Father Scott is running the Blazers (zing!).

Trichinosis cases average about 12 per year.

Mad cow disease has killed exactly zero Americans ever.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t be careful or even change their eating habits to avoid contracting terrible diseases. I’m saying use some deductive reasoning before you boycott the tomato.

I’m also saying the famous “Grassy Knoll” never existed, but the world’s not ready for a conspiracy theory that explosive just yet.

Eight Common Foodborne Illnesses And Their Symptoms [Consumerist]
The big 8 foodborne illnesses and what they do to you [CalorieLab]


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