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

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

Related Posts:
Stacked Costs and Second-Order Foods: A New Way to Think About Rising Food Costs
How to Give Away Your Power By Being a Biased Consumer
Brand Disloyalty
41 Ways You Can Help the Environment From Your Kitchen
A Recession-Proof Guide to Saving Money on Food

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Charity said...

I had the same problems when I read an article on CNN the other day about this report. That article, at least, mentioned that the reason ice cream was on the list was because of one isolated outbreak in 1994. Not that the event should be swept under the rug by any means, but labeling it a "dangerous food" because of one incident?

As far as your question about whether or not it's ethical for an organization to massage the truth, I would have to say no. Even if the CSPI does good work in the future, to me, they're the organization that cried wolf. They've lost credibility. Why should I believe them or even care what they have to say next?

Your point about the potential waste of tax money and political energy on this non-issue was one I hadn't considered, but I completely agree. Then again, I've never suffered from food poisoning, and I might feel very differently if I had.

Mumses said...

great article! and I totally agree to the rancidity of the CSPI report :). As to the ethical question, though, is marketing/advertising ever really ethical? because this seems to be how marketing/advertising is accomplished in today's information-drowned world. (imagine the conference titles: "selling your product using today's media outlets", "getting noticed in the information age") Non-profits feel the pressure too. CSPI probably hired some marketing dude and said "get us noticed" and he's just doing his job - pretty well, actually.

Sally said...

I'm vegan so I thought I was pretty safe. Surprised to see that only 5 out of 10 of the foods on the list were animal products. Interesting. I keep up on the health and nutrition aspects of my diet (love www.vegstarterpack.com) but never really considered possible food illnesses that I couldn't avoid.

Daniel said...

Charity, thanks for the context on the ice cream. That adds to the lameness of this report, doesn't it?

Mumses, agreed, this "watchdog" group is exceptionally good at getting noticed. I would argue, however, that marketing and advertising doesn't have to be unethical. There's a difference between promotion and misrepresentation.

Sally, I think you've missed the point here. You ARE safe. At least from eating contaminated food.

One other thought: I'm looking forward to the first comment that claims I'm against safe food, and therefore I'm evil and therefore I like to kill puppies in my spare time. Even a cursory read of this blog's content will show you that what I'm really against is the reckless misleading of the public.

And I like puppies.


Devon said...

Creating fear is a great way of getting attention. I always take these things with a grain of salt. Remember the spinach, jalapeno, and tomatoes scares?

Daniel said...

Agreed Devon. And ironically, the tomato scare WAS the jalapeno scare--early on in the jalapeno scare before we had nailed down the actual source of the contamination, it was mistakenly blamed on tomatoes that had been combined in some restaurants with the jalapenos. Thus it seemed like there were two outbreaks when there was only one. Thanks for your thoughts.


Priscilla said...

I get so inflamed when I hear reports like that, especially because of the dramatic nature of the "reporting." makes it seem like I'm playing russian roulette when I make a tuna sandwich - and the truth is, it's probably more dangerous for the big tunas that are being overfished than for me to eat a sandwich or sashimi. The other thing is that I didn't hear any real critics on CNN regarding this report -- did I miss that? I might have turned the channel too early.

Unknown said...

I was actually a member of CSPI for a while, back when I was in my "losing weight" phase. And, my thoughts overlap what I had to say about "The End of Overeating."

I think the CSPI does a good job of being an irritant to big food, and keeping after them about things like calories on menus. However, they seem to make their living out of blowing things out of proportion. After I started reading up on food issues myself, I decided that CSPI was more interested in scare tactics than they were in actual education, so I let my membership lapse.


Daniel said...

Priscilla, thanks for your comment. I think this goes toward how useless TV news generally is. I doubt you would have heard the side of the debate you're reading in my post on CNN--It's too easy to caricature this argument as "rooting against healthy food," and thus it would be hard to get someone to come on camera to argue the case that the CSPI is overreaching.

Mike, it sounds like you made a thoughtful choice. It's unfortunate that the CSPI put out this report because there are such better uses of this media time. There are so many legitimate issues they could debate and publicize if they used a more principled search for the truth.


KB22204 said...

I think the point of the report was to call to the attention of the public that while we think our government is properly regulating our food supply, they aren't. FDA doesn't even have the ability to recall contaminated food at this point - it is left to the food companies to decide if something is unsafe. And lets face it, those guys like their profits and don't care who's slumped over a toilet sick from bacteria-infested spinach.

Daniel said...

KB: Thanks for your comment. I hear you.

However, I think a couple of questions are worth asking. The number of people sickened by spinach and all of these other foods combined isn't even a rounding error. Isn't that what we as consumers want in the first place? Is it really fair to claim that the FDA isn't doing its job in such a case?

Again, if you are a reader of this blog, you'll know that I am in no way an apologist for the food industry. However, too often it's deceivingly easy to hear about a report like this, think there's a crisis when there isn't, and blame greedy spinach growers who clearly must be laughing all the way to the bank while their customer are slumped over their toilets (excellent imagery by the way--I hope you don't mind if I recycle it).

I just think it's important to decide if there's a crisis or not in the first place. Despite the CSPI's gift for snagging media attention, there is no crisis.


chacha1 said...

Unfortunately, in general, many readers (perhaps particularly in the U.S., where we as a population seem to have a high level of basic literacy but a low level of reading comprehension), are very much challenged by the notion of CONTEXT and consequently do not do well at distinguishing fact from opinion.

Given that I - and most people in the country - have eaten several times a day, each meal comprising several different ingredients, every day of our respective lives, without getting food poisoning more than once or twice in a lifteime (if at all), it's clear that overall our food supply is enviably safe.

And I think it's completely unethical to present a report as being in the public interest when its data have been so thoroughly obfuscated.

JCS said...

So I'm a little late...

Almost every organization has the fault of self-sustainment as the primary goal. I say almost because I've seen rare exceptions. This becomes a problem when the goals of the advocacy aren't sufficiently quantitatively defined so as to allow for a declaration of completion of goals and folding of the organization.

Dare any advocacy group to answer: "What would allow you to cease to exist?" They always want to move the target to allow the organization to continue.

Daniel said...

JCS: That's a great comment. Of course, it's a necessary goal in some respects because an organization that's great at doing what it does but can't sustain itself... well, that organization won't do what it does well for long. Obviously.

Sometimes though, I wonder if what the CSPI is actually good at doing is just whining in a way that grabs the media's attention. Maybe it's just me.