Impact of microbial count distributions on human health risk estimates

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Quantitative microbiological risk assessment (QMRA) is influenced by the choice of the probability distribution used to describe pathogen concentrations, as this may eventually have a large effect on the distribution of doses at exposure. When fitting a probability distribution to microbial enumeration data, several factors may have an impact on the accuracy of that fit. Analysis of the best statistical fits of different distributions alone does not provide a clear indication of the impact in terms of risk estimates.

Thus, in this study we focus on the impact of fitting microbial distributions on risk estimates, at two different concentration scenarios and at a range of prevalence levels. By using five different parametric distributions, we investigate whether different characteristics of a good fit are crucial for an accurate risk estimate. Among the factors studied are the importance of accounting for the Poisson randomness in counts, the difference between treating “true” zeroes as such or as censored below a limit of quantification (LOQ) and the importance of making the correct assumption about the underlying distribution of concentrations.

By running a simulation experiment with zero-inflated Poisson-lognormal distributed data and an existing QMRA model from retail to consumer level, it was possible to assess the difference between expected risk and the risk estimated with using a lognormal, a zero-inflated lognormal, a Poisson-gamma, a zero-inflated Poisson-gamma and a zero-inflated Poisson-lognormal distribution.

We show that the impact of the choice of different probability distributions to describe concentrations at retail on risk estimates is dependent both on concentration and prevalence levels. We also show that the use of an LOQ should be done consciously, especially when zero-inflation is not used. In general, zero-inflation does not necessarily improve the absolute risk estimation, but performance of zero-inflated distributions in QMRA tends to be more robust to changes in prevalence and concentration levels, and to the use of an LOQ to interpret zero values, compared to that of their non-zero-inflated counterparts.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Journal of Food Microbiology
Pages (from-to)48-57
Publication statusPublished - 2015


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