Sunday, July 27, 2008

On Aerial Safety and Food Safety

The Times has a review of airline safety today.

I think there's an interesting parallel between aviation safety and food safety.
Like the food industry, there's a broad variety in institutions: we have very big airlines operating very big planes, very small airlines operating very small planes, and individuals flying their own planes. Similarly, we have big companies operating big food processing plants, small companies operating small plants, and individuals processing food in their kitchens.

Now--safety. We know flying is safer than driving and we know flying today is safer than it was 50 years ago. See this. Now Wikipedia doesn't have comparable figures on food safety. However, for any reader of The Jungle it's likely the food safety statistics are similar to those of aviation. The reason: we are humans and humans learn. It may take a few airliner crashes, but we learn how to keep pilots from flying planes into the ground (most of the time). It may take some episodes of food poisoning, but we learn what preservatives to add to the food. Or we learn how to recall

Now, it's a truth not universally understood that big planes are safer than small planes, that American Airlines is safer (on deaths per million miles traveled) than Podunk Airlines, and much safer than Tom Bigshot flying his own Cessna. Might it be true that, on average, food from the large corporate plants is safer than from the smaller plants and even more safe than food from our kitchens? I think so, but without many things I can point to.

However, there is this story, where six members of a family were sickened by ingredients they put in their meal. And Down to Earth has an interesting discussion of safety of ground beef, comparing locally processed meat with that from national plants. I agree with the last sentence, because plants can learn, but we don't do that well.

1 comment:

Sara said...

One factor that is often missed in small-scale production safety perceptions is "assessment bias". If Joe's 2 bushels of homegrown tomatoes are tainted with Salmonella, it is likely to go undetected or reported.

I don't think we have a good handle on real safety measures of small versus large production.