Putting a Price Tag on the Cost of Human Suffering from Food Borne Illness

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A new report released today by the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University has found that the health-related costs of food borne-illness, including medical bills, lost wages, and productivity, costs the US $152 billion each year – four times the previous USDA estimate.

The report doesn’t take into consideration the economic impact such food-borne illnesses have on businesses themselves. Kellogg Co., for example, is reported to have lost $70 million related to the massive peanut butter recall in 2009.

Of course, one cannot put a price tag on human suffering. There are about 76 million new cases of food borne illness each year, with 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.

The intention of the report is to encourage Congress to pass more stringent food safety legislation by putting the severity of the problem in economic terms. A food safety bill would increase inspections, fund research, and force the industry to improve its record keeping, costing government money. Comparing the cost to the benefits of such legislation could help move the bill forward.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut, who calls the costs “shockingly high”, said that the US needs to reduce the risk of these preventable illnesses. “If people can’t engage in this issue because of the humanitarian aspect of the public health aspect, maybe they’re willing to listen because of the economic aspect,” she said in a conference call.

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According to Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety coordinator for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the report shows that “consumers are spending $85 billion on the consequences of unsafe food for every $1 billion the government is spending to prevent it. This report shows that if we could work to eliminate pathogens in common food products, it would go a long way toward reducing health care costs.”

State lawmakers have been attempting to push several food safety bills over the past year. In the 2009-2010 legislative year, 553 bills involving changes to food safety have been introduced in 48 states, according to Doug Farquhar, a program director for agriculture at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Produce Safety Project report identifies 27 different pathogens, including norovirus, E.Coli, salmonella, listeria, campylobacter, and botulism, that are responsible for the majority of the illnesses. Yet in many cases, researchers still cannot pinpoint why or how people get ill from what they eat.

The study finds that over 80% of the illnesses and two-thirds of the costs have unknown origins. Because people eat several times a day, it is sometimes difficult to determine exactly which food caused the sickness unless a trend is discovered among many in a population. In some cases, the food itself may have been safe when produced and purchased, but mishandled at home using poor preparation processes, such as cross-contaminating raw produce with raw meats.

Adding to the problem is the complexity of our current food safety program. There are about 15 different federal agencies that are responsible for keeping the American food supply safe. The USDA, for example, is responsible for meat and poultry safety, while the FDA handles other cases, such as produce. With that many players, there are bound to be gaps.

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act is currently before the Senate for approval, however it has been stalled in order to focus on health care reform.

Summary of National Food-Borne Illness Costs, from the Produce Safety Project:

  • Medical costs: $9.88 billion
  • Quality of life losses: $93.3 billion
  • Lost life expectancy: $49.2 billion
  • Total cost: $152 billion
  • Average cost per case: $1,851
  • Three most expensive food-borne illnesses: Campylobacter ($18.8 billion), Salmonella ($14.6 billion), and listeria ($14.6 billion)
  • Top 10 States (according to cost per case): Hawaii (approximately $2,008 per case), Florida, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, the District of Columbia, Mississippi, New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.
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