One of the great things we love about the Internet is that the entire readership is in a massive quick-error-correction mode. We published a piece called Food Safety And Why The Problem Will Only Get Worse…Or Won’t, which pointed out that the Centers For Disease Control estimate that tens of millions of Americans get sick with foodborne illness every year but only a tiny fraction of these presumed sufferers are ever identified. As identification technology improves, we are likely to experience more reports of foodborne illness even if the food supply gets safer.
It didn’t effect the main point of the article, but we happened to link to and quote a paper by Robert A. LaBudde, an Adjunct Professor of Food Science at North Carolina State University and President of Least Cost Formulations, Ltd., a food industry consultancy that included this quote:
“A bout of diarrhea once in 20,000 meals seems an acceptable risk, given that one in 28,500 Americans die from lightning strikes each year.”
Fortunately, ever vigilant Pundit reader Louis D. Albright, Professor of Biological and Environmental Engineering and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University, was on the case:
Jim — About the lightning deaths per year figure in today’s issue, http://www.lightningsafety.com/nlsi_lls/fatalities_us.html suggests a far smaller number. 28K+ sounds more like the number of highway deaths???
We turned this information over to Robert LaBudde for comment and this is what he came back with:
- I am no expert on lightning strikes, so I’m not the source of this number.
- I was quoting a number from the same website you list above: http://www.lightningsafety.com/nlsi_info/media.html. The website says, “Your risk of being killed by lightning is 1:28,500 per exposed individual. (NPH Newsletter January, 1992)”.
- The difference in numbers can be assigned to exposure period. The period you quote is 756 deaths in 14 years for 280 M people, or 1:370,000 persons per 14 years, or 1:62,000 per lifetime (assuming an 84 yr lifetime). This number is not far away statistically from the 28,500 number, particularly if such deaths were more common in the past.
- It’s clear that the website is not completely consistent on estimates, and my statement should, in any event, have read “one in 28,500 Americans die from lightning strikes”, with the “each year” dropped. I believe this correction is what should be made.
- I have made the correction indicated above and uploaded a new file. Its link is: http://www.lcfltd.com/downloads/tr161 food-related illness in the US.pdf
Thanks for bringing this error to my attention.
Which sent the Pundit scurrying back to Professor Albright:
The 1 in 62,000 is a sensible number. The National Geographic several months ago had a graphic that contained the odds of dying due to lightning in the U.S. as 1 in 79,746, based on 2003 National Safety Council data. It is an interesting graphic, actually — with odds as follows for a few possibilities:
fireworks discharge: 1/340,733
legal execution: 1/62,468
bee sting: 1/56,789
hot weather: 1/13,729
alcohol poisoning: 1/10,048
firearm assault: 1/314!
I should stop there!
So we wind up learning a lot from our mistakes. We will correct the archives but the point remains precisely the same: Over roughly the same period, while 756 people died from lightning strikes, five died from spinach and lettuce. Public health resources may be better off invested in other areas than produce safety.