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Food safer than every before but the media scares the public into believing food safety is a problem
Friday, September 09, 2005 4:38 am Email this article
"[Food] is probably safer than than it ever was in the past," said John R. Krebs from the University of Oxford in Oxford, England in a lecture on "food, fact and fantasy". 2500 people died per year in Britain in 1938 from raw milk
“For instance, in 1938, although it was known that over 2500 people a year died from drinking raw milk in Britain, the risk was not seen as big enough to justify legislation to make pasteurization compulsory,” Krebs noted.
“We now expect much higher standards of food safety,” Krebs continues.
Newspapers scare people into believing food safety is a big issue
“However, if you look in the newspapers, you might sometimes think that we are continually confronted with serious food risks. Of course, much of this is drama rather than news,” says Krebs.
One incident of food safety per day, but most are trivial
“It is true that there is, on average, at least one food safety incident a day, but the vast majority of these are trivial,” Krebs notes.
“[However,] If you ask people to rank food risks from a prompt list, the top five are usually food poisoning, pesticides, additives, welfare and bovine spongiform encephalopathy [mad cow disease].”
Sixty percent of people surveyed said that food poisoning was their number one concern about food.
100 times as many people die from heart disease caused by poor diet as people who die from food poisoning
However, in Britain, only about 10 people per year from food allergies, less than 20 people per year die from mad cow disease, and only about 500 people each year die in Britain from food-born illnesses compared to roughly 35,000 dying from coronary heart disease caused by poor diet and another 56,000 people dying from cancer caused by diet—assuming that one-third of deaths from cancer and coronary heart disease are caused by diet.
To put this in perspective, “choking to death on food apparently cause about 150 deaths per year [in Britain], and getting out of bed about 100 deaths”.
To avoid risk, do not eat or sleep
“So one message is, if you want a risk-free life, do not eat or sleep!” Krebs says jokingly.
Media amplifies peoples fears
“The media write stories that people want to read, so they mirror and amplify peoples’ concerns not just about food, but about health scares in general,” says Krebs.
Death from mad cow disease gets 23,000 times the media coverage as death from obesity
“A survey by the King’s Fund has shown, for example, that a death from variant CJD [mad cow disease] (an unbelievably harrowing and tragic loss of young life) attracts, in proportion, 23 000 times the media coverage of a death from obesity,” according to Krebs.
Risks that are ‘unknown’ or ‘dread’ seen as bigger than they really are
Here is one reason that people may believe that some risks are bigger than they really are according to Krebs.
Psychologists such as Paul Slovic have suggest that risk that are seen as “unknown” or “dread” are perceived to be bigger than they really are, and those seen as opposite to that, are seen as smaller than they really are.
‘Unknown’ and ‘dread’ defined
“Unknown” risks are those which are new, not observable, have a delayed effect and are not well understood.
“‘Dread’ means uncontrollable, involuntary, inequitable and potentially catastrophic,” Krebs states.
Krebs JR. The croonian lecture 2004 risk: food, fact and fantasy. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2005 Jun 29, 360(1458):1133-44.
AUTHOR’S CONTACT INFORMATION
Department of Zoology
University of Oxford
Oxford OX1 3PS, UK
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