Food Safety: Perception vs. Reality

Anyone paying attention to the thousands of food safety-related headlines generated each year would think that Americans have little reason to trust our food system. Increasing media coverage has led the public to believe that foodborne illnesses are becoming more prevalent, provoking increasing public distrust in the food industry. But the facts challenge this conventional wisdom: the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that the number of foodborne illnesses have actually dropped by more than 23 percent in the last decade.

RaymondPerceptionsReality-UpdatedGraph1_small 

Unfortunately, the media – and, consequently, the public – more often focus on the reports of a large number of people affected by a foodborne illness, rather than the actual overall decreases in illnesses.  This public misperception is caused in large part by the substantial increase in coverage of foodborne-illness outbreaks and food recalls in the last decade – a symptom of the changes in global media, social media, the rise of the internet and shorter news cycles. Media coverage of food recalls related to illnesses from Listeria, E. coli O157:H7 and Campylobacter dramatically increased by 114 percent from 2005-2010 and by more than 350 percent from 1996-2010. Online discussions of food recalls have also spiked in social media in recent years.

RaymondPerceptionsReality-UpdatedGraph2_small

As one example of what I consider to be overemphasis leading to misperceptions, foodborne outbreaks related to E. coli O157:H7 alone generated more than 3,500 media stories in 2011, a 149 percent increase since 2001. During the same time period, the CDC announced a 43 percent decline in E. coli O157:H7 illnesses and the number of persons affected by the deadly E. coli O157:H7 bacteria in 2010 was the lowest since mandatory reporting for this pathogen began.

What the media isn’t reporting on, and what consumers don’t always know, is that technological advancements such as Pulsed Field Gel Electrophoresis (PFGE), which provides the bacterial DNA “fingerprint”, have provided unprecedented opportunities to detect, identify and track foodborne pathogens and link what used to be considered isolated illnesses to clusters. With more people with the same pathogen to interview about food intake, identifying the source becomes easier. Identifying the source usually results in a recall. Identifying the source also may be interpreted as identifying the villain, and that sells media.

The graphic shows a significant increase in media reports after 1996 because of the successful introduction of PFGEs that year. It also shows a significant jump and sustained reporting in 2006. What happened then was not a rise in illnesses, but the finding of E. coli in spinach and Salmonella in lettuce. Now produce, that was always felt to be of less risk to cause a foodborne illness than meat and poultry, has been identified as the most common source of foodborne illnesses because of better epidemiologic investigating.

The Catch-22 for the food industry is that better food safety systems and epidemiology – a good thing for both industry and consumers – may lead to more recalls and negative public perception of the industry. There are fewer foodborne illnesses overall because we are better at preventing pathogen contamination of products. We are also better at detecting pathogens before food leaves the farm or factory and makes it to stores and ultimately, consumers’ plates.

Confronting the myths about the supposedly failing system with the facts about the actual decrease in food-borne illnesses represents a real challenge for the food industry. I try to do my part. Thank you for reading, and look for more posts about animal and human health in the upcoming weeks.

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