When we wake up on February 1st, everything will have changed here in the UK.
Precisely how depends on your worldview; 52% of the voting public believe Boris will be flying overhead in a recommissioned Concorde (minus the French components, natch) throwing portions of fish and chips and pints of foaming English ale to his adoring masses.
Which will be handy; all the brown people will have been deported so the chance of scoring a decent curry or Chinese will be pretty slim. And you can forget about finding a decent plumber or prostitute; they’ll all have all been fucked off back to Poland.
Meghan and Harry have already done a runner and it could be Her Majesty is on thin ice too: Saxe-Coburg-Gotha on her side plus Phil the Greek Battenberg-Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg might be a bit too… well… ‘foreign’ for the sunlit uplands of King Boris’s Glorious New Empire.
For the other 48% the outlook is bleak, however. Recession, unemployment and no food on the shelves because all the ports will be clogged by all-new red tape delivered by grumpy truck drivers on overtime.
They’re still pretending it’s sort-of like the UK accidentally unfriended Europe on Facebook while really pissed one night – and if we just unplug 2016, wait 30 seconds and plug it back in again this whole shitstorm will simply vanish like a fart in a fan factory.
So, what’s this got to do with Our Microbial Overlords?
A couple of the stories that took on a life of their own during the recent election were that:
Boris would immediately sell the NHS in its entirety to his tangerine shitgibbon mate over the pond; not for cash but just in the hope of unleashing his sexual incontinence on either Malaria or Trumple-thin-skin’s Barbie-Nazi daughter (or both);
The UK’s food safety standards would be “slashed” to US levels delivering a world – according to Comrade Corbyn speaking in Parliament recently – “where ‘acceptable levels’ of rat hairs in paprika and maggots in orange juice are allowed and they’ll put chlorinated chicken on our supermarket shelves.”
It’s not all about ‘chlorinated’ chicken, that’s just the availability heuristic at work.
It’s the assumption that US safety standards waaaaaay inferior to those we currently enjoy will be inflicted on us overnight – and we’ll be literally force-fed rancid and rotting food unfit for human consumption. In fairness this didn’t start with Jezbollah; the ‘chlorinated chicken’ trope cropped up throughout the election campaign but has been doing the rounds in various guises for quite a while.
In one of its more recent manifestations the Independent reported:
“Estimates from the US Centre for Disease Control say salmonella accounts for deaths at 420 a year and 1.35 million infections. Deaths through salmonella in the UK, however, are significantly less likely – with the zero salmonella-related deaths in the UK in 2015 and 2016, according to Public Health England.”
And regarding Campylobacter – which is on 2/3rds of all raw chicken sold in the UK and the most prolific bacterial foodborne pathogen:
“Meanwhile, the rate of campylobacter deaths in the US stands at approximately 124 per year according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Data held by the UK government found just one related death occurring from 2015 to 2017.”
So, how safe is our chicken?
Are the reports true that we really are several orders of magnitude more likely to die or get very sick under US food standards than those in the UK? What’s the truth?
I’ll get on to wider food production questions later. I want to boil the chlorinated chicken / US livestock issues down to a simple question:
Are standards of food safety in the US worse than the UK?
This seems a simple question but it’s complicated. Let’s use a surrogate outcome and hone the question down to “is there greater incidence per capita of foodborne illness in the US than the UK?” Given this is the measure used to prop up most of the headlines let’s try to bring some rigour to it.
Having done some digging a lot of this seems to go back to March 2019 and an item on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. For the uninitiated, this programme modestly describes itself as the BBC’s ‘flagship’ news programme and prides itself on keeping the political class honest through dogged pursuit of the facts of any matter at hand.
They were investigating a claim by US Ambassador Woody Johnson that the USA has some of the “lowest food poisoning rates in the world”.
The BBC ‘Reality Check‘ correspondent, Chris Morris, reported that he had investigated the question and that the statistics were clear:
“The Center for Disease Control in the US estimated there are about 1.2m illnesses from Salmonella in the country every year and 1.3m from Campylobacter. Now that works out about 0.4% of the population for each of them.
“And if you compare that with the UK figures for 2017, it means you are about 4 times as likely to get an illness caused by Campylobacter in the US than the UK and roughly 20 times more likely to suffer from Salmonella poisoning.”
To summarise the core of Morris’s analysis:
Rates of Campylobacter illnesses in the US are 4 times higher than those in the UK;
Rates of Salmonella are 20 times higher than in the UK;
The Ambassador was “flat wrong” and “no room for doubt” was left.
BBC chief Tony Hall has described the BBC’s ‘Reality Check’ unit as being a vital part of the Corporation holding people to account in the fight against fake news. And when the Reality Check team make pronouncements such as these they are never challenged by fellow BBC journalists.
But directly accusing the US Ambassador to the UK of being full of shit on air? You’d better be pretty sure of your facts…
Comparative analysis of stuff like foodborne illness or deaths across countries is difficult. Methodologies and protocols differ. But it’s not impossible. You can make estimates, you just need to be clear and transparent on what your sources are and any assumptions you’re making.
However, despite these difficulties there is one thing about which we can be absolutely certain.
The Reality Check piece that Morris fronted made the schoolboy error of comparing numbers measuring two completely different fucking things. For the US, he used estimates of total illnesses whilst for the UK he used lab-confirmed cases.
And estimates are always way higher than confirmed cases; 9.3:1 for Campylobacter and 4.4:1 for Salmonella in the UK.
The bit that troubles me – well, one of the many aspects of this that I can’t get my head around – is that data for lab-confirmed cases are readily available for both countries. A more rigourous comparison could have been easily made. But for some reason it wasn’t.
Yes, comparisons between different studies are fraught with difficulties but based on those data we do have available, rates would seem to be higher in the UK – certainly for Campylobacter than the US. (Note that Salmonella is rare and serious, Campy is common and unpleasant but generally not too serious).
One could argue that methodological inconsistencies mean we need to treat the numbers with caution – but that concern didn’t stop Reality Check making the ‘stretchy’ assertions that have been parroted elsewhere ever since.
What’s the answer?
In order to settle the matter there would need to be a comparison of rates of foodborne illnesses by country, gathered and analysed using a common methodology, preferably performed by an organisation with a degree of credibility.
Oh, fuck me, it just so happens there is one. The WHO did it.
This was what was cited by US Ambassador in his defence of US food safety standards. But Chris Morris reckons the 265-page WHO report is not relevant because it gave numbers:
“…only for total foodborne diseases and not the specific pathogens (Salmonella and Campylobacter) relevant to chlorine-washed chicken”
Not true. There is a useful summary of the report in PLoS Medicine which is easier to digest than the rather lengthy UN report. Check out Table 4 and you can see rates for every single foodborne agent including Campylobacter and Salmonella.
There is a flaw; it gives estimates by region rather than country and the AMR 1 region comprises the USA, Canada and Cuba. But given the US comprises >85% of the population of AMR 1 the study has power and comparisons with Western Europe region (EUR A) has meaning. And don’t forget all the countries in EUR A have common food safety and hygiene standards.
North America (and by extension the US) is estimated to have a lower burden of:
Total foodborne disease
All diarrhoeal diseases
Campylobacter and non-typhoidal Salmonella (specifically S. enterica serovars).
So, the position that Campylobacter and Salmonella rates are 4 and 20 times higher in the US than the UK is based on a fatally-flawed interpretation of the available data and I can’t find any original or robust sources that even come close to supporting a similar premise.
Granted, there is no perfect comparison, but the available data are consistent with the US Ambassador’s claim that US has lower rates of foodborne illnesses than Europe.
Morris also asserted that food-related death rates are much higher in the US than the UK and that the CDC estimates 450 deaths from Salmonella every year whereas in the UK fatalities are extremely rare.
Wrong again. As before, he compared two completely different measures: estimates of total deaths in the US with UK deaths where Salmonella was lab confirmed / recorded as the cause of death on the death certificate.
An issue I frequently have with the BBC is it seems (probably due to my confirmation bias) that whenever they report on a subject within my narrow area of dubious expertise they usually get it spectacularly wrong.
But this one is different. The data are readily available, as you can see above. Yes, there’s some nuance – but there always is. But errors like comparing numbers measuring completely different things is so basic and fundamental it’s not one I can readily attribute to an honest mistake: in life there are three things that smell like fish. One of them is fish. I have strong suspicions about this one.
Am I being too critical here? Let me know in the comments.
A month after the original story was released they changed the Reality Check page removing the most egregious assertions but thanks to the Wayback Machine you can still see the original containing the shonky claims Morris embellished in his piece on Today.
(As an aside they also cherry-pick a study saying chlorine isn’t toally effective – no shit, Sherlock, as any microbiologist will tell you.
“…so they might remain capable of causing disease”
…that’s why you cook the bloody chicken, FFS….)
The newer version is a wishy-washy ‘well, you can’t really make a comparison‘ and a bunch of innuendo that kind of assumes their position – that US food safety standards are lower.
But the damage was already done and the original zombie chlorine chicken story has been reappearing ever since across social media, the press – and even Parliament.
Egregious misrepresentation of the stats to support a preexisting political bias or just crass incompetence? You tell me. I don’t think the BBC will.
But keMikiLs Ain't nAtUral!
Let’s be clear. I’m not making a case for or against chlorine-washed chicken or US vs European food supply chains. My only point is that this is being characterised as a food safety issue and it’s not.
Chlorine? Sounds nasty but pretty much every bagged salad you buy is washed in chlorine. Chlorine is promiscuous and dissipates rapidly. Salads don’t taste of swimming pools, nor does chicken that’s been washed in chlorine (I know, I’ve eaten it loads). In many restaurants they’ll still bung chopped leaves into a sink with a chlorine tablet – I’m not a fan of that or chlorine as a disinfectant (don’t get me started) but it’s common.
There’s also a huge cultural element. In Europe, food standards are from ‘farm to fork’ and encompass stuff like animal welfare too; that’s the EU’s principal argument to prevent cheap US poultry flooding the market. I know US food hygiene law and practice resonably well and it’s more based on ‘provided it’s safe at the point of consumption’ than the all-encompassing EU system. It’s just a different approach.
I’m happy to accept that animal welfare standards may well be lower in the US for livestock (and non-existent for poultry) but that’s a moral question, not a food safety one;
The global issue of using hormones prescribed therapeutically to humans as animal growth promoters remains a huge problem – but again that’s not a safety issue (and when I was over there a couple of weeks back there was far more meat in the supermarket labelled hormone free);
The environmental impacts of intensive US farming are also an issue. I’ve seen hog farms there with actual lakes of pigshit. I kid you not. Lakes. But, again, this is not a food safety issue.
In some ways this reminds me of the horsemeat scandal; all the scaremongering headlines and hand-wringing but that was a food labelling issue, not a food safety one. Also the issues above – animal welfare, hormones and environment – are not limited to the USA. Far from it.
I can understand people latching on to food safety fears and how the mythical chlorinated chicken was an easy flag to manipulate people into rallying around. What I still can’t understand is how a food safety scare story clearly unsupported by the data could be propagated by a ‘flagship’ BBC news programme. And it’s not like they were unaware of the data, it was dismissed with a metaphorical wave of the hand by the journalist who was apparently not brought to heel by any editorial process.
As I say, crass incompetence or motivated reasoning / naked bias? You tell me. Neither is a good look…