There’s food, damned food and statistics

Kat Pope June 13, 2013


My son ate a yoghurt the other day. It was only afterwards that I told him to look at the ‘best before’ date on the lid. It was three months out of date. He went ballistic. I told him not to be such a twerp and that he should know by now that you can eat yoghurts as long as the lid isn’t blown.

But I’m wondering if the Council’s Food Safety Team would give him the same advice I did (but perhaps without the twerp bit), as this week they’ve joined up with the National Food Standard Agency to give us a little bit more nannying in the form of Food Safety Week.

Perhaps I’m being a little harsh on them. After all, the press release tells me that 88% of those asked in Brighton ‘admitted to one or more habits that put them at risk of food poisoning.’ For instance, 38% said that they’d be quite happy to eat stuff that has been on the floor, but the question this begs is ‘would you still eat eat if you didn’t have a tap to wash it under before?’ as this is a big qualifier.

The same problem arises with the statistic that 30% admit to not washing their hands properly before preparing food. What’s ‘properly’ when it’s at its nan’s? I went to a science show the other day which demonstrated what ‘washing hands properly’ really is. It takes 3 minutes and 7 different scrubbing actions. How many of us have the time or the inclination to do that?

But the shonkiest thing of the whole survey is the numbers involved. 60 people in Brighton took part.. The survey is based on 60 people (although a bigger national survey was taken, the percentages I’ve quoted come only from the Brighton part of the survey, or so I can see). So that means that all of 22.8 people said they’d eat stuff off the floor, and 18 that they didn’t think they scrubbed up enough. Out of 60. And without the big qualifiers. And the questions are of course what one person thinks about their own behaviour, and you know how honest you are to yourself, don’t you. And who’s the 0.8th of a person? That’s a very odd touch in such a small survey.

I’ve been listening to More or Less on Radio4 with the lovely Tim Harford if you hadn’t already guessed. This neat little programme tries to explain numbers and statistics in everyday life and often points up surveys that aren’t quite what they seem.

It’s very easy to throw out a press release these days and for it to then just be churned out by an editor who doesn’t look at the facts behind the stats, and it’s a practice that does us all down in the end.

WEB.300The government, of course, are one of the main culprits. They’re already in hot water about their misuse of statistics, Iain Duncan Smith in particular. He claimed that 8,000 people had moved into work as a result of the benefit cap, yet the UK Statistics Authority say that this is ‘unsupported by the official statistics.’ Then there’s Health Minister Jeremy Hunt who’s claim that ‘health tourists’ are costing the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds has no evidence at all behind it. Grant Shapps (or whatever he’s calling himself today) stated that nearly a million people had dropped their claim for Incapacity Benefit rather than face an assessment for it’s successor, ESA. Again, the UK Statistics Office have said this is nonsense.

But does all of this really matter when it comes to a little study that is supposed to chide us along into thinking about food hygiene? Well, yes, it does, simply because it throws numbers at us and expects us to swallow them without any critical thinking and that’s not a good way to a) run a council b) run a press outlet or c) run a country.

Sometimes this becomes ridiculously incestuous as when  Michael Gove cribbed from a Premier Inn press release and announced to the world that “survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance, with one teenager in five believing Winston Churchill was a fictional character while 58% think Sherlock Holmes was real.”

Picture yourself as a teenager faced with a survey like that. The bright ones are going to be affronted by the stupidity of the question and mischievously muck it up, while the not so bright might have the urge to ‘stick it to the man’ and have a big bloody laugh too. I know I would have said ‘You what??’ if I’d been confronted by such a survey when I was a teen and would have promptly told them that Sherlock Holmes was actually my dear old dad and Winston Churchill was fictional as he was the one in that novel who was afraid of rats eating his face.

But enough of this and back to more pressing matters. I mean, look at this statement in the press release from Councillor Pete West, chair of the council’s Environment Committee: “Using up leftovers is a great way to cut down on waste and save money.” No shit Winston. That’s something that would never have occurred to me if I’d have stood in a bucket of school canteen pig swill for three days solid, being pelted with sprouts. Use up leftovers you say? It will save me money you say? Halle-bloody-lujah and praise the lord!! How did I ever live without Councillor Pete’s words of wisdom?

Now stop it. You’re being facetious. Yes I am, and I will.

But why do press releases rely on numbers and percentages so much anyway? Usually because it’s a sort of dumbed-down shorthand that is supposed to make people sit up and take notice, or it’s simply because there’s not much substance in the message to begin with: the numbers hide the paucity of content.

So what’s this got to do with the price of eggs or, indeed, the amount of deaths they claim are caused by food poisoning (500, a suspiciously nice round number don’t you think)?

Nowt. I’m just rambling and grumbling and railing against a) the dumbing down of everyday life and b) stupid council and government campaigns using the most unsubtle, un-nudgy form of ‘nudge theory’ to try to get us to change our behaviour.

There’s a school of thought (mostly expounded by Alan Davies on QI to be honest, but nontheless valid) that says that if you’re stupid enough not to cook chicken well enough on a BBQ, then you don’t deserve to live. It’s evolution innit! The main problem with this one is that the dullard undercooking the wings not only kills himself but everyone else who trusts his cooking (although to trust a twat to do your outdoor cooking in the first place does make you a dullard yourself, albeit a bit of a lesser one).

There are of course things that we all do with food that are a bit dodgy. I’m a veggie so don’t often worry too much about food hygiene, but everyone throws their hands up in horror when I tell them that I cook a big batch of rice and then keep it in a bowl in the fridge, spooning out a portion to zap in the micro when needed over a period of three or four days. Arghhh!! Do you want to die, Kat??!! That’s cooked rice! It will kill you as soon as look at you!

Oh balls. I’ve been doing this for years and never come down with anything. If I had a big carcass of a poor chicken hanging upside down over it I might begin to worry, but it’s rice. It’s a cereal grain. In a bowl in a fridge. And besides, life’s too short to spoon it into bags, freeze it, then remember to defrost it before you need it. Son Sid is lucky that the rice is bloody cooked in the first place (he knows what a slattern I am in the kitchen).

You know what happens now. Next week I’ll come back and report that I’ve come down with a gippy tummy. Ha! You fools. As if I’m gonna let on! The last laugh is then obviously on yo….oh, wait…..