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We don’t believe these proffered numbers about food poisoning

Summary:
Will Hutton tells us that food poisoning is vastly more prevalent in the US than UK- therefore we must not allow American food to grace our tables nor pass our lips. We are not sure we believe these figures. Partly simply because they’re just too convenient to Hutton’s political argument - more Europe, less US, always - and partly because we can’t quite understand why Hutton would suddenly become either reality based or correct. But here is the claim:One in six Americans fall ill every year from the food they eat (according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). In Britain, it is one in 28. This week, the negotiations over the shape of the final relationship between Britain and the EU resume in earnest, making the next three or four months among the most fateful of our

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Will Hutton tells us that food poisoning is vastly more prevalent in the US than UK- therefore we must not allow American food to grace our tables nor pass our lips. We are not sure we believe these figures. Partly simply because they’re just too convenient to Hutton’s political argument - more Europe, less US, always - and partly because we can’t quite understand why Hutton would suddenly become either reality based or correct.

But here is the claim:

One in six Americans fall ill every year from the food they eat (according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). In Britain, it is one in 28. This week, the negotiations over the shape of the final relationship between Britain and the EU resume in earnest, making the next three or four months among the most fateful of our lives. The grandstanding is over. And food quality, standards and security are going to become flashpoints.

This is also a claim that has been made by Jolyon Maugham so we know that it’s wrong, we just have to work out why.

Fortunately there’s a Fact Check out there on the point. The answer being that CDC and the FSA are measuring “illness” in different ways. That different definitions lead to different incidences should not surprise. We’ll get a different incidence of racism if we define it as enslaving someone for the colour of their skin or calling the Irish kid “Spud”.

There is an update to the FSA’s numbers using something much more like the CDC definition.

As well as identifying about half a million cases of food poisoning attributable to 13 specific pathogens researchers believe that 10 million incidents of infectious intestinal disease (IID) a year are not yet attributed to a specific pathogen.

The CDC numbers do indeed include the “we dunno what caused that” figures and we get to roughly the same result too, about one in six. Roughly, you understand.

It’s also possible to look at hospitalisation figures - presumably the thing we’re actually interested in anyway. CDC has 128,000 or so a year in the US, The FSA has about 20,000 in the UK. Control for the relative populations and we get 0.03% as the incidence for each country.

True, we’ve had to use only two digits after the point to get to that, it’s more like 0.039% in the US and 0.03% here but we’d submit that our fiddle of the figures is rather less than some others in this shouting match. We’ve also not corrected for those who can’t be bothered to wait for the NHS to note them and thus go home without treatment.

Reality is that food caused illness is about the same in both countries. As that’s not a politically useful answer that’s not the one being given. We have mentioned that we largely despise politics as a manner of understanding the world, have we?

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Tim Worstall
Tim Worstall is a British-born writer and Senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. Worstall is a regular contributor to Forbes and the Register. He has also written for the Guardian, the New York Times, PandoDaily, the Daily Telegraph blogs, the Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2010 his blog was listed as one of the top 100 UK political blogs by Total Politics.

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