On the heels of two E. coli outbreaks that are still under investigation, ABC News hyped the risk of food-borne illness and suggested more government regulation could prevent illness and death. But Americans are as likely to die in a car crash with a semi truck as from food poisoning, and government disease experts believe better reporting and treatment explain the rise in documented illness.
“After all the illnesses, tests and theories, investigators still don’t know which foods are causing the outbreak or where they come from,” ABC anchor Charles Gibson noted as he introduced Lisa Stark’s report on the December 12 “World News Tonight.”
After informing viewers that “there’s no indication this outbreak is connected” to an earlier outbreak at Taco Bell restaurants in the Northeast, Stark quickly turned to the push for regulation.
“This latest scare on top of the spinach E. coli outbreak in September is increasing the clamor for changes in food safety oversight,” Stark noted as she introduced a sound bite from liberal Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). (She has a 95 rating with Americans for Democratic Action.) DeLauro insisted that the 5,000 who die each year in the United States from food-borne illness are proof positive of the need to create a new government agency to handle food inspection, absorbing the duties now scattered among various existing agencies.
To bolster DeLauro’s call for more spending, Stark featured the liberal Center for Science in the Public Interest’s (CSPI) Caroline Smith DeWaal calling on the Bush administration to ramp up the FDA’s budget and hire more inspectors.
Stark left out that CSPI’s aims are as broad as DeLauro’s. CSPI, which has also sued or threatened to sue fast food chains over their cooking oils, called for a large government bureaucracy to oversee the food supply “from farm to fork,” in a September 15 news release.
What’s more, DeWaal has previously resorted to scary rhetoric to slam the Bush administration on food safety. “President Bush, don’t make us put our lives on the line every time we put meat on our plates,” DeWaal complained in a March 14, 2002, press statement.
Yet no critic of government regulation was brought out to balance DeWaal and DeLauro. What’s more, the federal government’s own findings on food-borne disease present a decidedly less frightening portrait of food safety in the United States.
While the U.S. sees an “estimated 76 million cases of food-borne disease” each year, the vast bulk of them “are mild and cause symptoms for only a day or two” while the worst cases “tend to occur in the very old, the very young” and people with compromised immune systems according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Web site.
Another CDC Web page noted that “technological advances such as pasteurization and proper canning have all but eliminated some disease,” and while incidents of food poisoning have risen over the past few years, some of that is attributable to better reporting and more careful analysis of individual cases, not necessarily a compromised or unsafe food supply.
Additionally the CDC reported that the 5,000 deaths a year are significantly lower than some 20 years ago. A 1987 study reported some 9,000 deaths from food poisoning cases. While 5,000 may sound like an alarming number, it’s about the same number of deaths the federal Transportation Department calculates to occur each year from auto accidents involving large trucks on U.S. highways.