Salmonella Cost-Benefit Analysis

 NANCEE E. LEWIS / Union-Tribune Heirloom tomatoes have found their way into many restaurants after an outbreak of salmonella linked to raw tomatoes has led to the removal of certain varieties from the market. Stuart Buck notes that the 130 hospitalizations that resulted from the 943 reported cases of salmonella poisoning caused $100 million in losses to the U.S. tomato industry (and untold damage to the industry in Mexico). He calculates this at $770,000 per hospitalization and asks, simply, “Worth it?”

Before you answer, you might want to factor in another variable: “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has come out and stated that tomatoes are likely not the source of the salmonella outbreak.”

Photo: Nancee Lewis, San Diego Union-Tribune

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Health, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Michael says:

    Worth it to those of us who were not hospitalized? No. Worth it to those who were? Well you’ll have to ask them.

  2. Michael says:

    I guess the question you should as yourself is, would you be willing to be hospitalized due to slamonella, so that other people could have cheaper produce?

  3. Hal says:

    Hmmm. If this were the Iraq war, I guess we’d call this a stunning victory and well worth it.

  4. Michael says:

    Hmmm. If this were the Iraq war, I guess we’d call this a stunning victory and well worth it.

    What, we don’t have enough comment threads around here where that might be somewhat on topic?

  5. Hal says:

    Well, sure. However, it’s interesting to think that Cheney has a 1% doctrine and this seems to be widely accepted on the right. However, in terms of anything social, climate or as mundane as food safety, they seem to have the 110% doctrine – i.e. you have to go well beyond what anyone rational would consider to be hard evidence and squelch even the rambling Bircher before you can be justified in doing anything. And then, when something minor goes wrong, they jump on it with both hands and wave the bloody flag.

    Just kind of interesting to contrast the two strategies and cognitive dissonance that it implies.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    Well, let’s see. Nearly 1,000 cases were reported. Presumably, some number more went unreported. How many more cases were averted by the recall? Even if tomatoes themselves were not the culprit it certainly looks as though something served with the tomatoes was (cilantro? onions?) and that got pulled back as a secondary effect of the tomato recall.

    I don’t think we have enough information to determine cost-benefit.

  7. spencer says:

    Buck studiously avoids providing the information needed to answer his question. When he provides me information of how many hospitalizations were prevented by the recall I’ll be happy to try to do a cost-benefit analysis. It might even be zero. In that case we have the info needed to do the cost-benefit analysis.

    You are a PhD Economist and should know this.

  8. grampagravy says:

    What dollar value does Stuart Buck put on his own life? My suspicion is that it is the lives of others that may not be worth (to him) $770,000 that inspires his question.

  9. Anon says:

    Was what “worth it” to whom? If the restaurants voluntarily dropped the tomatoes, then clearly they must have thought it was worth it.

  10. Michael says:

    Just kind of interesting to contrast the two strategies and cognitive dissonance that it implies.

    Not as much as you seem to think it is.

  11. James Joyner says:

    You are a PhD Economist and should know this.

    A PhD political scientist, actually. But, as noted in the post, the key point is that the tomatoes weren’t even the cause of the outbreak! So the cost produced none of the direct benefit.

    Now, Dave Schuler may be right that it produced a secondary benefit because the tomatoes would otherwise have been served with something that was contaminated. And one makes public policy decisions on the best available information.

    Still, a massive cost to the agriculture sector for relatively, apparently, little benefit.

  12. Hal says:

    Not as much as you seem to think it is.

    Apparently? How much damage can, say, getting mad cow disease into the food chain cause? How many deaths result from climate change? How much cost do we bear due to the inability of large segments of our population to get even barely adequate nutrition in the first five years of life?

    But have the mere possibility that a country that can’t possibly threaten us might – might – get WMD and we commit several trillion dollars, several thousand lives and countless unmeasurables – not to mention our moral high ground on human rights.

    Seems like an amazingly dissonant mindset.

  13. Anon says:

    As far as I’m aware, it was all voluntary. So, this is just the same as any other kind of risk avoidance cost. What was the cost of all those people avoiding airplane travel after 9/11? Why aren’t people asking if the costs of that were “worth it”, since, after all, there were no more airplane attacks.

  14. Hal says:

    Yea, I can’t see James actually addressing this point. Where’s the “cost”? I mean, was there any pressure by the Government on this that they can point to?

  15. Michael says:

    Seems like an amazingly dissonant mindset.

    Oh it is, it’s just not as interesting as you think.

  16. James Joyner says:

    Yea, I can’t see James actually addressing this point. Where’s the “cost”? I mean, was there any pressure by the Government on this that they can point to?

    The FDA issued an Alert, which meant that, absent a recall, sellers would have been liable to massive lawsuits if someone got sick. The FDA alert, while presumably based on the best info available, turned out to be a false alarm.

  17. PD Shaw says:

    Its not an either/or situation. I’ve always thought the best approach would have been to issue a warning and particularly inform those susceptible to serious infections (young children, the elderly, and the immunocompromised) of their risk. But no recall (or effective recall) of an entire food group. It was an overregulatory approach of a condition concerning a small portion of the population.

  18. PD Shaw says:

    Dave Schuler points out that nearly 1,000 cases were reported. But 40,000 cases are reported every year in the U.S. Link

  19. Hal says:

    So, let’s get this straight. What would those on the right expect to have happened here? Nothing? No alert? What?

    Whining and complaining is one thing. I’d like some constructive criticism. It’s always easy in retrospect to whine. The issue is what to do in the future. Any advice? Any recommendations? A recommendation to decrease the powers of the FDA? What?

    Seems to me that the “cost/benefit” cannot possibly be judged on a single case by case basis. Rather, it’s a statistical argument that can only be made over the aggregate. I see no arguments regarding that. Am I missing some?

  20. Michael says:

    So, let’s get this straight. What would those on the right expect to have happened here? Nothing? No alert? What?

    CDC Warning: Your food may or may not contain salmonella, eat at your own risk.

  21. James Joyner says:

    What would those on the right expect to have happened here? Nothing? No alert? What?

    A lower key alert, perhaps? The problem is that government, in its perfectly understandable need to “do something,” tends to overreact and overstate the certainty of its information. Something to the effect that “salmonella is on this rise and here are some steps you can take to minimize your risks” would have been far preferable in this case than “Tomatoes can kill you! Don’t eat tomatoes!”

  22. Hal says:

    A lower key alert, perhaps?

    I don’t see how that could have possibly changed your legal argument of jeopardy. Also, this has to be viewed in the light of the last big issue in which the entire response was *heavily* criticized as too little, too late.

    I think you’re getting the kind of government you’re willing to pay for. Not enough troops on the ground means that the overworked, trigger happy ones that are there are going to be constantly erring on the conservative side, for their own protection.

    Again, if you don’t like mutants, stop growing them in toxic waste. Fund the agency and you’ll stop wasting people’s time and money in other areas.

    However, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

  23. Michael says:

    you’re getting the kind of government you’re willing to pay for

    if you don’t like mutants, stop growing them in toxic waste

    there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch

    Can you include a few more platitudes in your next post?

  24. Anon says:

    Well, perhaps if a restaurant ignored the FDA warning, and if a customer had gotten sick, then they would have been sued. Should they be liable? Heck if I know. (Maybe if they hand the customer the FDA warning along with their menu, they should be held not liable. But what if they ignore the warning but don’t tell their customers about the existence of the warning? You could argue that it is the customer’s responsibility to stay on top of FDA warnings and make their own decisions. I dunno.) But anyway, this seems more of a general issue with our legal system, rather than a cost-benefit issue with the tomatoes warning.

    As to making the FDA warning more low key, yeah, that sounds good, but that is pretty subjective. The actual warning seems to be here. Is it alarmist? Heck if I know, and, furthermore, there is no real way for any of us to know unless we are presented with all the evidence that the FDA based the warning on.

  25. Hal says:

    Can you include a few more platitudes in your next post?

    Not sure what you’re getting at. But if it bothers you, one should simply ignore it. 😉

  26. Michael says:

    Not sure what you’re getting at. But if it bothers you, one should simply ignore it. 😉

    Yes, but ignoring comments pretty much kills a conversation. I’d just like a few more solid points, and a little less feel-good philosophy. I generally agree with you on matters of substance, it’s just your style that irks me.

  27. Stuart Buck says:

    Two points above are worth addressing:

    1. There’s not enough information to do cost-benefit analysis. Right. But the fact that, in a nation of 300 million people, so few people were so mildly affected, combined with the fact that it probably wasn’t due to tomatoes, gives me a strong suspicion that inflicting hundreds of millions of dollars of damage on tomato growers isn’t the best response.

    2. A few people suggest that I’m being too cavalier with other people’s lives. That’s not really the issue. I wouldn’t pay $700,000 or a million to avoid having a bad case of diarrhea myself. So why should I expect someone else to pay that cost, particularly if it’s not going to prevent me from having the bad case of diarrhea in the first place?

  28. Anon says:

    …gives me a strong suspicion that inflicting hundreds of millions of dollars of damage on tomato growers isn’t the best response.

    Yes, if, we can clearly identify an action that should not have been done. For example, if the FDA had issued a ban, we can debate whether or not the cost of the ban was worth the benefit.

    But in this case, the FDA only issued warnings/recommendations, etc. So, we are left just debating the wording of the FDA bulletins. They look relatively non-alarmist to me, but I have no idea how the average person would interpret them. (For what it’s worth, I basically ignored them.)

    So what is the alternative? Should the FDA never issue any information until it is absolutely certain? Or should it set-up some kind of advisory board to debate the wording of bulletins before release? Heck, maybe such a board already exists.

    Frankly, this strikes me as a kind of “institutions are not perfect” kind of complaint. Yes, there can be a lot of hysteria over things like GMOs. Yeah, people tend to overreact. Yeah, the vaccine scare is stupid. Yeah, the breast implant scare was also stupid. Etc. But expecting all government issued bulletins to be tuned pitch-perfect seems to be rather idealistic.

  29. PD Shaw says:

    When the FDA issues the following statement:

    FDA recommends that retailers, restaurateurs, and food service operators offer only fresh and fresh cut red Roma, red plum, and round red tomatoes and food products made from these tomatoes for sale or service from the sources listed above.

    a standard of care has been evidenced and any restaurant choosing to ignore the standard is almost certainly going to be found liable for any subsequent injuries.

  30. It’s always easy in retrospect to whine.

    Snort. No doubt. Or to try and tie every thread to Iraq. Twice.