CNBC wants you to know that ground beef is going to kill you. Are you sure, CNBC?
Last month, CNBC posted an article which stated that “ground beef is riskier when it comes to containing bacteria that can cause food poisoning.” Then they included some statistics from Consumer Report which tells us that over a 10 year period (2003-2012), 5 people died from eating tainted beef. FIVE. So, to clarify. Five people died by eating beef. Get scared of your grills everyone. Beef is dangerous. Factually, ground beef is more likely than other types of beef to contain E.Coli. So, since the above statistic is for any type of beef, we know that five or less people died due to eating tainted ground beef. Let’s start there. How worried should I be about this problem?
First we need to understand the odds of ground beef sickness. There are approximately 270,600,000,000 lbs of beef consumed by Americans each year. Over the 10 year study, 1144 people got sick- So let’s assume that 114.4 people got sick per year. So the odds of getting sick if you eat 1 lb of ground beef per week is 0.000000042276%. When you consider how many people died, 5 people over 10 years, we lost 0.5 of a person each year. This leads to a 1.85 x 10-9 % chance of death due to tainted beef (assuming you eat a pound of beef a week). Maybe that seems like a high percentage. Let’s compare it to lightning. There are an estimated 330 who get struck by lightning in a given year. (Thanks NOAA for having an entire webpage dedicated to this!) You are waaay more likely to get struck by lightning than killed by ground beef. And only 33 ultimately die from lightning each year. Suffice to say, it’s SUPER unlikely to get food poisoning from beef. Maybe that’s why more people are inherently more scared of lightning than of a hamburger patty; the patty is not intrinsically dangerous.
But while we are at it, let’s compare ground beef to other dangerous things. Spiders kill 6.5 people/year while centipede’s kill only 0.5 people/year. Wolves only kill 0.1 people/year. So, I guess that’s interesting! If you have decided to be one of the people who thinks wolves are evil-super-aggressive-creatures-who-should-be-shot-on-sight… then maybe you should be worried about beef consumption. Because beef consumption is actually 5X more dangerous than wolves! This statistic should highlight how non-dangerous beef is… and also how not dangerous wolves are. Because wolves are not dangerous. (On a tangential topic, please don’t shot wolves; they are extremely valuable to nature!)
So why is CNBC writing an article about how horribly dangerous ground beef is? Well, the rest of the article mostly talks about cooking your meat. Because you can kill E. coli quite effectively by cooking your meat to at least medium doneness. So, in some sense, this article is telling us that 5 people died because didn’t know enough to cook their meat! Inflammatory Internet Statement! CNBC is pushing their well-done agenda on their readers! They are saying, if only everyone cooked their meeting till it was brown, then we wouldn’t have this problem. In seriousness, I think the unfortunate five just liked to eat rare meat and got unlucky with E. coli infested beef.
I don’t prefer rare meat, but if I did, then I would accept this level of risk as part of my life on this planet. As a mathematician, this risk is in the noise. There is no compelling reason to change your habits if you happen to like rare meat. At least not from my frame of reference.
Special Thanks: The article discussed in this post was recommended to me by Bret Weaver, who is a reader of Social Mathematics in Minneapolis, MN. Thank you, Bret, for the great article recommendation and our subsequent discussion about it! If you want to read more from Bret check out on Twitter @WeaverBret.