Those Damn Government Bureaucrats, Keeping Us From Eating Poison Food Again…

At least 53 people have been sickened by tainted, chopped romaine lettuce in an expanding E. coli outbreak that now spans 16 states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday.

At least 53 people have been sickened by tainted, chopped romaine lettuce in an expanding E. coli outbreak that now spans 16 states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday.

Source: New York Times, E.Coli Outbreak Tied to Romain Lettuce, 4/19/18.

Unless you have an advanced chemistry lab in your house or you grow all your own food — meaning, 99.99% of the US population — you assume the food you buy in grocery stores and are served in restaurants is safe to eat.  That assumption is right with only infinitesimal exceptions.  Let’s do the math using some “back of the envelope” numbers

  • 360 million Americans
  • Each eats 3 meals a day on average
  • Each meal consists of 3 food items on average

That means, on average, conservatively, Americans consume 3,240,000,000 — that’s 3.2 billion — food items per day.   This is a conservative estimate because in the age or processed foods, most food items contain dozens of ingredients.

Accordingly to the article, over 24 days, March 14 to April 6, or 77,760,000,000 (that 77.8 Billion) food items consumed, 53 people were reported to be made ill by the contaminated lettuce. Even if the 53 reported cases was only 1/100th of the actual number of e.coli cases, that means the food supply error rate was only 1 sickness per 147 Million food items.  The average person, who lives to 80, only consumes under 300,000 food items his his or her life has a less than 0.02% chance of food poisoning in their lifetime.

In contrast, the National Safety Council reports your risk of dying from a lightening strike in your lifetime as 1 in 114,000.

 

 

Externality: Food poisoning

A reasonable, but perhaps not accurate, assumption of US consumers is that they food they are eating will not make them sick.  Yet, every year, about 15% of the US population gets sick from food they eat.

About 48 million Americans get sick from food-borne diseases each year, according to the agency. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

A radical free marketeer would say “caveat emptor” – let the buyer beware. But in the age of industrial agriculture and a high societal reliance on prepared foods, such ideological purity is not realistic.  Consumers cannot tot around a food testing lab to every meal they eat or every grocery store they visit.  We rely on a combination of the merchant and our government to protect us from food that makes us ill. This is because, the cost of that Chipotle burrito or that head of lettuce does not capture the true cost of giving perfect information to the consumer about the safety of the food they are about to consume. That is why we need regulations.