17 Aug 2010

Foodborne illness

According to this post foodborne illness costs us $152 billion a year in lost quality of life/medical expenses. Can anyone put this in context? Tyler Cowen mentions that if each of us has a quality adjusted life year worth $100,000 then our annual total "value" of life is on the order of $30 trillion. Thus $152 billion/$ 30 trillion is not very large.

The trend in this cost figure may be more interesting. I would guess that the trend in foodborne illnesses decreased with the intro of a fridge and associated understanding of pathogens, but then regrettably it appears (CSPI pdf) to be on the rise now. That seems odd given our steady trend in doing things that improve safety. I suppose it could also be an artifact of the data - the pdf above only has data from reported cases, and those are a small subset of those that occur. (When I got sick at a Chinese restaurant a couple years ago, I didn't really know if it was their fault or just mine from eating too much).

Eric Schlosser, of Fast Food Nation, sees these data and wants a new food safety bill to reverse this trend. His point is that we are importing more food from China, and they are not always giving us food. He is also concerned about the rise of corporate controlled food and factory farms. He calls for increased inspections and stronger recall authority for the government, which may improve the food supply from these factories, but at what cost? The fact that one large meat plant can sicken thousands indicates that there are costs to large meat processing centers, and food safety bills typically encourage bigger factories (they have an easier time complying with new regulations). Americans may prefer getting their meat from large, sterile slaughterhouses, but government interferes in this decision by encouraging such large production in the first place.

Bottom Line: Food safety has tradeoffs, and it seems that the result of increased food safety regulation has been more homogeneous, lower quality food from larger factories. That may be worse that the alternative.


  1. There are many factors impacting food safety. Increased importation from dubious places where their only real advantage is labor costs and quality issues at packing is definitely one of them. The increase in more resistant pathogens is another problem. A third is the over-reliance on a few gigantic systems for moving most of our perishable foods.

    There is no such thing as a sterile slaughterhouse.

    Your bottom line is pretty good, man.

  2. Another factor not often mentioned is a change in food preferences. My understanding is that, in addition to the mishandling of food, a lot of food borne illness/poisoning comes from eating raw food. A few that come to mind that have been issues in the recent past include raw oysters, raw or almost-raw beef, raw greens (spinach, peppers, tomatoes). Raw food may harbor pathogens that would otherwise be killed off during the cooking process.

    I do think foreign produced food should be subject to the same standards. They should be subject to the same compliance costs as domestic producers.

  3. One large meat plant can expose millions, and sicken hundreds of thousands, not just "thousands." It's become increasingly clear that concentrating meat production and processing into fewer and larger facilities is not in the public interest - yet the governmental response invariably results in further concentration, as you note. This concentration appears safer in the short run, because it is more amenable to government oversight and regulation; but regulatory capture and the Black Swan effect suggest in the long run, catastrophe is almost certain. Already we have produced one "superbug" - E. coli H7:O157 - and there are signs of others. In the long run, these kinds of low-probability but extremely dangerous developments are likely to become unmanageable.

    The consumer market is unfree (distorted by government policy and by propaganda) and the consumers are largely unaware of the choices, so the economics are dysfunctional. (Note your poll results, for example - people who think about these things make very different choices.) But how do we get from here to a system of smaller, locally-distributed producers? I don't see how that's possible without a fundamental shift in the economic and political system. Which either is, or results from, a low-probability event...

  4. DFB, that one is debatable. For example, there has been a scare about raw milk pathogens, but (though I'm a fan of pasteurization) if raw mild were half the U.S. market, fewer people would still be sickened from it than from ground beef every year. And, all those folks aren't eating raw ground beef at that level.

    However, you do make an interesting point.

  5. But how do we get from here to a system of smaller, locally-distributed producers? I don't see how that's possible without a fundamental shift in the economic and political system

    It seems to me we are getting there slowly. A slow but steady movement exists towards locally produced food including meat (I know a decent number of folk that buy meat and eggs from farmers, although it is still a minuscule fraction of society). But I don't expect the government to lead us there - instead they will create sterile spinach fields where no deer can poop and infect the greens, leaving us with a leaf that looks like spinach but likely is less nutrient rich than a spinach leaf grown a hundred years ago.

    Perhaps science will soon be able to show this type of benefit, perhaps not.

    More likely, some people will buy cheaper meat, others will understand the risks and seek out better meat, and this divide will converge over time. The economic incentive is definitely there, however - I don't think that the choices are entirely hidden. As you say, some people are aware, some not. I think that will always be the case, and over time those who don't care, I expect, will gradually learn to care or will have the income to care.

  6. Not too many doctors would feed their children raw milk, Josh. The risk is only moderate, but the benefits are tiny,the consequence of disaster high.
    The incidence of stomach cancers (consequent on bacterial infection and associated insults) hepatitis, and other soil and water borne diseases was far greater on our organic past. in more recent times, attempts to make food more uniform, inexpensive, and available have created health problems of their own (to say nothing of what that development has meant for those of is who love to eat and cook); but the goal (aside from uniformity) is worthwhile.

  7. Sorry, Josh I misread your comment on raw milk. Blame it on the iPad...

  8. If it would be worthwhile, (if I knew we'd make money) we'd expand our flock to meat chickens and raise more turkeys. You wouldn't believe how much a turkey eats, and they need more protein the chickens. The marketing of our organic, happily housed and grazed birds would be time consuming and add more cost, lowering the already nonexistant margin due to feed costs. We sell eggs at a break even price, $3 a dozen, because that's the going rate. We used to sell at a loss (feeding Layena, a commercial feed), but discovered a better, more wholesome feed we make ourselves from locally grown grains. The reason store bought eggs are so cheap is the factory farms have high volume (plus USDA subsidies) to lower costs at the expense of the chickens' lifestyles and the eggs' freshness. Grocery store eggs are over a month old. A dozen of ours are 1-2 days old. There are no USDA subsidies for small producers of very fresh, organic, free range eggs. We are in fact, in violation of USDA policy because our chickens have natural light, air, no food additives, and a big yard to scratch around in.

  9. I and most others here in the SF bay area are paying closer to $6/dozen for pastured eggs. The lady I buy from feeds hers excess grocery store produce to cut down on feed costs, but she also doesn't have a farm where they can forage. Can your chickens forage for food? Can you collect neighbors composts to supplement their diet? It seems to me you want your chickens eating as many scraps, insects and worms they can find, and only feeding them feedgrain if absolutely necessary.

    Also, what is your source for the age of grocery store eggs? USDA says a little differently


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