Risky business

The Center for Science in the Public Interest's reputation is based on its controversial stance on foods Americans eat.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has gained a reputation for taking controversial stances on foods Americans eat. CSPI has taken on fast food, fast casual and other restaurant chains for portion sizes, calories, fat content, sodium content—you name it. I suppose that you could view CSPI’s efforts as a case of an organization having its heart in the right place even as it dives off the deep end into overkill. It often had salient points to make, even as it used a sledgehammer where none was needed. Over time, I basically had come to tune out CSPI’s diatribes against the restaurant and foodservice industries.

So I missed CSPI’s latest rant, until a Facebook posting by Don Odiorne of the Idaho Potato Commission called my attention to it. What I found was an issue I considered to be both wrongheaded and wrong-hearted.

Last week, CSPI released its list of what it called the 10 riskiest foods to eat. The items on the list are ranked in order of the largest number of outbreaks of foodborne illnesses attributed to them over a several-year period. The list is surprising for several reasons, beginning with the items on the list. Here it is, in order of the number of outbreaks during the survey period:  Leafy greens, eggs, tuna, oysters, potatoes, cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts and berries.

My first thought when I read the list was, my life is over. I indulge in nine of the 10 items on the list, oysters being the only food I am not fond of. My second thought was, where’s the beef—specifically, ground beef. My third, and overarching, impression was, how could any of these foods—again, with the exception of oysters—be considered risky in and of themselves?

Don Ordione wondered the same thing, especially where potatoes were involved. He and I chatted about the list during the International Foodservice Editors Council conference held this week in San Diego, and we agreed that none of the foods are risky, despite the outbreaks of foodborne illnesses CSPI attributed to them. Rather, there are other factors, most often either the handling of the foods or items mixed with them, that led to the outbreaks.

I’m not sure what CSPI hoped to gain by releasing this list. But it is a perfect example of the adage, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” I’m no epidemiologist, but to me the science seemed to be off. The study had to be flawed, or incomplete, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why.

Don supplied an article that articulated the problems with the study. Penned by Jim Prevor, the founder and editor-in-chief of both Produce Business and deli Business magazines and a fourth-generation purveyor in the fresh foods industry, Prevor writes on a Web site called the Perishable Pundit. He called the CSPI study “an opportunity missed.” To read the article, go to click here.

But his basic message is, a list such as this does very little to address the real problem, which is food safety, and will cause people to eschew safe and healthful foods instead of realizing that the real risk is in not learning how foods should be handled to keep them safe. That’s a shame, but then, CSPI has seldom expressed an interest in meaningful dialogue.