I’ve always been a numbers guy.  I am not talking about mathematics, but just plain numbers.


I do still wake up at night occasionally thinking I have a college algebra or calculus test in the morning.  But that’s math.

At some point I took an aptitude test and learned that I should be a certified public accountant, a profession I’ve come to respect, but at the time I could think of nothing more boring. 

Those tests did point me at arithmetic.  Just give me the numbers, please.

No surprise I am a baseball fan and, yes, on occasion I’ve placed a wager knowing the odds.  I know the OBP and the ERA, and the over and under.  Point me to the sports book.

So let me tell you how I view the new numbers on foodborne illness in America from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).   

The new projections and those old estimates CDC made in 1999 are kind of like Powerball and Mega Millions.

No, I do not suggest buying lottery tickets.  Back when the mob ran the numbers you had a decent chance of winning occasionally, but not since the government took over the business.

Powerball, which is played in 42 states and the District of Columbia, gives you a 1 in 62 chance of turning your $1 bet into the minimum $3 win.  Mega Millions, played in 41 states, gives you a 1 in 75 shot of turning a $1 bet into a $2 win.

People in many states can play both games.  Those who can play both probably do not pick one or the other based on the differences in those odds.  Instead, they probably decide which game to play based on habit or the size of the current jackpot.

If there were a game, however, in the form of a lottery or a casino table where you had a 1 in 4 chance of winning and it did not pay out in foodborne illnesses, people like me would be lining up to get in.

Now let’s pretend we’d been playing in this casino with 1 in 4 odds since 1999, and the word comes down it is changing to 1 in 6.   What would we do?  My bet is we would not change casinos, nor even lift our heads up from our tables.

We would continue to play because, just like the difference between Powerball and Mega Millions, there would not be much distinction in those changed odds.

The fact that CDC’s new best estimate for foodborne illnesses–48 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths–is less than its 1999 estimate of 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths is not much of a game changer.

The day CDC steps up and says the chance of you getting a foodborne illness is no more likely than your winning $3 in Powerball, now that would be a game changer.

Right now, winning a week of explosive diarrhea or worse is still way too easy.  It will happen to you long before you win $3.  It’s all in the numbers.