Who's Watching the Watchdogs? Ethical Problems in the "Ten Riskiest Foods" Report By the CSPI

Readers, a quick reminder: during the month of May I’ll be featuring articles from Casual Kitchen’s archives. Enjoy! As always, I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

Here's where I correct an example of raging intellectual dishonesty from a well-meaning food safety watchdog group.


Who's Watching the Watchdogs? Ethical Problems in the "Ten Riskiest Foods" Report By the CSPI

Anyone listening to the news over the past day or two has probably heard a news blurb or two on a highly critical report about the dangers of eating 10 surprisingly risky foods.

This report was written by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer watchdog group that has done an amazing job putting together a report that's both controversial and highly disturbing. And most importantly, the report is easy for reporters to work into an attention-grabbing story.

Too bad it's an utter non-story.

In today's post I'm going to discuss exactly why it's a non-story, and I'm going to raise questions about the ethics of manufacturing an apparent health scare in order to draw attention to a watchdog organization's agenda.

First, the report itself, which lists ten surprising foods already regulated by the FDA that led to more than 48,000 cases of food-borne illness. These foods, in order, are:

1) LEAFY GREENS: 13,568 reported cases of illness
2) EGGS: 11,163 reported cases of illness
3) TUNA: 2341 reported cases of illness
4) OYSTERS: 3409 reported cases of illness
5) POTATOES: 3659 reported cases of illness
6) CHEESE: 2761 reported cases of illness
7) ICE CREAM: 2594 reported cases of illness
8) TOMATOES: 3292 reported cases of illness
9) SPROUTS: 2022 reported cases of illness
10) BERRIES: 3397 reported cases of illness

All told, these ten foods accounted for a total of 48,206 cases of illness (the report gives no fatality information, but I would guess less than 1% of these resulted in deaths). The press release goes on to drop this exceptionally well-chosen money quote from CSPI staff attorney Sarah Klein:

"It is clearly time for FDA's reliance on industry self-regulation to come to an end. The absence of safety plans or frequent inspections unfortunately means that some of our favorite and most healthful foods also top the list of the most risky."

Pretty compelling stuff, huh?

We don't find out until the very end of the report, however, that these are the sum total of food-borne illnesses reported over a 17 year period from 1990 to 2006. That means that on a per year basis, there are approximately 2,835 illnesses per year.

And that, unfortunately, ruins everything.

Let me explain by putting these numbers in perspective. The USA has a population of more than 300 million. 2,835 people are sickened by these ten foods each year. That means that your odds of getting sick on these foods are roughly, 1 in 105,820 per year (or, expressed in percentage form, it works out to less than 1 one thousandth of one percent). The odds of dying? Probably well less than one in a million.

I will take those odds any day. Please pass the spinach and eggs.

Even if you swallow the CSPI's assertion that the list above represents only 40% of reported illnesses (thus the total could be 7089/year), we're talking about an illness rate of 2.4 thousandths of one percent.

Now I very much feel for anyone who's suffered from food poisoning, but anybody with a calculator can tell that this is not only not a health crisis, it is not even a rounding error. Compare the above data to the real health crisis of highway deaths, which run between 38,000 and 41,000 per year. Yes, that's right, per year. (And these are highway deaths, not highway "illnesses.") Now that is a legitimate health crisis, but somehow it doesn't seem to resonate quite the same way as dying from a pint of ice cream.

Here's why reports like this infuriate me, and why they should infuriate you too. People are going to avoid healthy foods because of this report. They are going to worry unnecessarily after hearing about this report. Worst of all, they are going to worry about the wrong things. I'm sure the CSPI means well, but they've written a report that actually hurts the public.

But it certainly doesn't hurt the CSPI. In fact, this report helps the CSPI gain attention and grow in scope and stature. Which brings me to my next point. Why do reports like this get written, and why is it that they are quickly picked up and widely disseminated by the mass media?

Because they are constructed specifically for that purpose. What talk radio show or news program isn't going to run with a story about food borne illness from foods like lettuce that are otherwise thought to be healthy? And along with lots of free media attention, the CSPI gets the warm patina of being an altruistic organization out to fight for healthy food. After all, "fighting for healthy food" is kind of like rooting for puppies, isn't it?

Now, what if I were to ask: what is the purpose of a watchdog/advocacy group like the CSPI? You might logically answer, "oh, well of course, they care about our food supply."

You'd be wrong. That's the CSPI's secondary purpose. Their primary purpose is to get noticed and thereby secure contributions, donations and support. And judging by this latest flurry of news coverage on their latest report, I'd argue that they are very good at that. The question is, at what cost, and with what unintended consequences?

If the CSPI mis-informs the public about a health crisis that isn't, and as a result causes us to expend resources, tax dollars and political energy on areas that do not need that attention, then the CSPI's ends do not justify their means. This, in a nutshell, is exactly what's wrong with our media and many of our watchdog and lobbying groups.

Therefore, in the future, when you see a news story on the food industry that sounds particularly horrifying, do two things. Listen with a jaundiced ear, and note what organization wrote it. If it's the CSPI, keep today's article in mind.

Readers, what do you think? Is it ethical for advocacy groups to bend and massage the truth to gain attention for their cause--even if it's ostensibly a good cause?

CSPI's own press release on the report
The full CSPI report itself

Other media outlets that gullibly picked up the story:
Pittsburgh Post Gazette: Calls grow for tougher food safety regulations
New York Times: Ten Common Food Poisoning Risks
ABC News: Where's the Beef? 10 Unexpectedly Risky Foods

A follow up article from the blog of Sarah Klein, a CSPI staff attorney and the report's lead author:
Are we all crash test dummies for the food industry?

Understandably angry responses from food industry sites:
Media Should Treat CSPI Report With Skepticism
An Outbreak of Distortion

Read Next: A Cup of Morning Death? How "Big Coffee" Puts Profits Before People

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chacha1 said...

I'm with you in being pretty disgusted by this kind of sensationalistic non-news. To me the immediately-drawn parallel is with the overselling of breast cancer as a health risk. Many, many more women die of heart disease than die of breast cancer.
But ...
breast cancer often (though by no means always) has a non-lifestyle-related cause, so it can be presented as "not your fault"
whereas heart disease often has a lifestyle-related cause, so there's a subtext of "it's all your own fault"
plus, of course,

Vicki said...

This is why I wish more people had math skills.