Krugman and food safety
May 23, 2007
In case you missed it, on Monday Paul Krugman became a part-time comedian (gated version; a non-gated copy is here):
Yesterday I did something risky: I ate a salad.
These are anxious days at the lunch table. For all you know, there may be E. coli on your spinach, salmonella in your peanut butter and melamine in your pet’s food and, because it was in the feed, in your chicken sandwich.
In the supposedly serious part of the article Professor Krugman blames our current "food safety crisis" on 1) globalization (that is, imported food), 2) big companies, 3) the Bush administration, and 4) the ideas of Milton Friedman.
Tim Worstall sharply criticizes Professor Krugman's reasoning. (He also adds, in a wonderful Britishism, that Krugman may be "rather losing the plot".)
Because of course food poisoning was so much lower in the days before globalization, food corporations, the Bush administration and Milton Friedman, right?
Read the whole thing.
But this did make me wonder: is U.S. food safety decreasing? A few minutes of searching on the Web turned up the Center for Disease Control's "Annual Listing of Foodborne Disease Outbreaks, 1990-2004" (and 2005 data are now provided). I state upfront that I am not an expert on these data. I don't know what biases they may be subject to. At a minimum, they don't indicate all the food-borne illness in the U.S., only the outbreaks that are serious enough and that affect enough people to be reported to the CDC. But as a first, quick-and-dirty empirical look at Professor Krugman's complaint they can be useful.
I leave as exercises for the reader whether 1) these figures indicate a crisis is in progress (hint: the U.S. is a country that seemingly shrugs at over 40,000 auto fatalities a year), and 2) even if so, what part of the blame President Bush and his evil minions deserve.