I sound like a broken record, but it’s important for us in food safety to remember inside our bubble that food safety is a public health issue, rather than an individual risk assessment (depending on your perspective). I care because the victims are innocent, but sometimes if we can communicate them in the right way, these public health type stats can be made to be more compelling. When something is unlikely, volume makes it likely. Despite our odds as individuals, we still get a powerball winner every few months. Except when it comes to food safety it’s a powerball winner of explosive diarrhea and hospitalization.

Here’s the narrative I share with my employees. I present to you: the pyramid of risk.


I think that we all feel pretty good about the job we do. You might say that we do it perfectly, most of the time right?

Think of it this way, I feel pretty good about finding my car keys every day before coming to work, but maybe once per year…nah, let’s say once every other year, I forget where I put them and have to spend 10-15 minutes in the morning frantically turning over couch cushions so I can get to work. . At once every other year, 1/730 failure rate of remembering where my keys are feels pretty good. I have a 0.14% chance of forgetting where my keys are on any given day. It doesn’t feel like that big of a deal.

That’s something silly though. We all take our jobs very seriously, and so I think we do a lot better than that. Like how every time someone touches the food or a food contact surface like the conveyor belt, they remember that they need clean hands/tools to do it. And even if they forget, it might not cause a problem anyway. Let’s say that 1/1,000 times we touch the food we don’t do it quiiite in the way we should, but there’s only a 1/10 chance that it might cause enough of a problem to make someone sick.

That’s not much, right?

*Out comes the pyramid of risk*

Well, let’s say that one in 10,000 times (0.01%) we screw up and it makes someone sick. That means if we only did it once per day, it would only happen every 27 years. Pretty good odds, right? Let’s assume that when we cook food at home, we have these odds. 0.01% of the time, we under-cook a meal, or cross contaminate on a cutting board, or we didn’t refrigerate something properly. If we keep this 1/10,000 risk, in a family of 4 eating 3 meals a day, someone in our house will get food poisoning every 2.3 years.

Has someone in your family been sick in the last two-and-a-half years? I’m feeling pretty good about the odds on that level of diarrhea and my own attention to food safety in the household.

Let’s say that our company is a small food company on this chart, based on the number of “meals” we make, if we screw up only 1/10,000 times, we make so much food that we’ll get someone sick every other day. While 1/10,000 may be good enough for what we do at home (wash dishes but don’t sanitize, lax handwashing, cooking without verifying thermometer is accurate), we make so much stuff here that we have the potential to impact many more people. Some of those people could be kids, elderly, pregnant, or have HIV and be in real trouble.

This is why we do what we do. This is why I walk around talking about how we need to fix the small broken piece on the equipment that isn’t causing a problem, this is why I threw away that product last week. I’m not going to come in week after week knowing that we got someone sick every other day, whether they realize it was us or not.

Are you? Do you think you’re better than 1/10,000?