EU Commission: Once in every 20 beef meals you eat…horse probably with drugs in it

Tonio Borg, Member of the EC in charge of Health and Consumer Policy and Paola Testori Coggi Director General, in the Directorate-General for Health and Consumers of the European Commission, in a happy exchange at the Health Policy Forum. (EC Audiovisual Services, 09/04/2013).

Tonio Borg, Member of the EC in charge of Health and Consumer Policy and Paola Testori Coggi Director General, in the Directorate-General for Health and Consumers of the European Commission, in a happy exchange at the Health Policy Forum. (EC Audiovisual Services, 09/04/2013).

This week the European Commission, and in order to be fair and precise, the European Commissioner Tonio Borg, tried once more to convince 500.7 million European consumers that the horsemeat and the Phenylbutazone scandal didn’t reveal any loopholes, in the EU food quality control systems. In a European Commission Press release issued at the beginning of this week, Borg insisted once more that according to the “test results on horse DNA and Phenylbutazone (showed) no food safety issues but tougher penalties to apply in the future to fraudulent labelling”.

Playing with our health

At this point the European Sting has to remind to Borg that within 24 hours from 14 to 15 February he changed altogether his assessment of the horsemeat scandal gravity. Sting writer Suzan A. Kane wrote on 16 February: {It was only the day before yesterday that the 27 EU ministers of Agriculture heard Tonio saying, “regarding the unlabeled presence of horsemeat found in certain processed food products, including burgers and beef lasagne…it is important to underline that the evidence to date in relation to this episode does not suggest a health crisis. Horsemeat, according to EU legislation, can be used for the production of minced meat and meat preparations”…As it turned out this horsemeat is suspected of containing phenylbutazone. This is a veterinary medicine the use of which in food-producing animals is illegal. In less than 24 hours Tonio was obliged by facts to retreat in his words and yesterday asked the 27 member states to test samples also for this dangerous for human health substance}.

This time the Commissioner responsible or probably irresponsible for Health and Consumer Policy tries once more to convince us that nothing happened, by using some statistical methods he obviously cannot understand. He maintains that there was no danger at all from the phenylbutazone found in our food. According to the Press release “the probability of a consumer being both susceptible to developing aplastic anaemia and being exposed to phenylbutazone was estimated to range approximately from 2 in a trillion to 1 in 100 million”.

As all first year students of Statistics know well that when it comes to probabilities it’s very easy to arrive to millions. The more complex a possible outcome is, the more probabilities are being multiplied to calculate the overall probability, for this complex possible outcome to happen. For example if the probability of a person being susceptible of developing aplastic anaemia is 1/1 000 000 and the probability to eat a meatball with phenylbutazone is 1%, then the probability this person susceptible of developing aplastic anaemia to eat a contaminated meatball is 1/1,000,000 * 1/100=1/100,000,000. For one thing one meticulous researcher could question those two probabilities. Usually when politicians want to hide the truth from people by using statistics, they underestimate the bad probability and overestimate the good one.

The play with statistics is very dangerous and very easily steerable to the preferred direction. Bankers for example, by underestimating the statistical risks built-in the ‘products’ they sold to investors, drove the whole world to the present financial and real economy crisis. In the case of human health however it’s not ‘profit & loss’ but health and illness, if not life and death. On top of that even if one accepts Borg’s logic that the probability for somebody to become very ill is 1 to 100 000 000, in the case of the 500 000 000 European million citizens, it is certain that 5 people will suffer. No Mr Borg?
In any case the whole text of the Press release issue by Borg is an obvious attempt to minimise the dangers, from a food industry quality control system completely inadequate and prone to produce alerts. For years the British cows, were fed with animal proteins before getting crazy, and nobody stopped it. Or what about this present case? The horsemeat stuffed with phenylbutazone, which was sold as beef before being detected in Britain, had galloped for weeks freely all over the European Union.

More probabilities

There is a lot more however in this Commission Press release. According to the text published, “the coordinated EU-wide testing for horsemeat DNA and phenylbutazone requested, and co-financed, by the European Commission in the wake of the horsemeat scandal has revealed that less than 5 % of the tested products had horse DNA and that about 0.5 % of the equine carcasses tested were found to be contaminated with bute”. If we use the laws of statistics and basic arithmetic, the probability to eat a beef product containing horsemeat with bute is 5/100* 5/1000= 25/100000=1/4000.

Not very little, because it means that one, in every 4000 beef preparations in the EU, contains horsemeat with bute. When Borg was telling the truth? Was it at the time when he reassured us that we are safe, because our chance to be ill from this reason is 2 in a trillion or now that out chances to swallow bute is one in 4000? Is it possible for a healthy person to eat bute and not be affected in some way? And for God’s sake, if we run such a danger every time we open our refrigerator, then what good is there in paying with our taxes all those fancy services, which supposedly control the quality of our food? The consumer organisations could do much better with all that money.

Last but not least the Commission didn’t comment at all about the huge probability we might be fed with low quality horsemeat, when we pay for beef. This probability is an unbelievable 5%, meaning that once in every twenty times we eat a beef preparation, it contains horsemeat. There is obviously something rotten in the kingdom of our food quality control services.

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