Food Poisoning Illnesses Cost Billions

by Haley Walker April 15, 2010

Girl pushing cart in supermarket

Americans are spending $152 billion for medical and “pain and suffering costs” created by food that makes them sick, according to newly released research from the Produce Safety Project, an affiliate of the non-profit Pew Charitable Trusts.

That’s more than the federal government’s bailout of AIG, or the amount the Senate recently approved to bring tax credits to businesses and individuals.

The federal Department of Agriculture previously estimated such expenditures between $6.9 billion and $35 billion. But that figure failed to include costs such as lost wages, productivity, and quality of life, says Robert Scharff, a former Food and Drug Administration economist and the author of the new study. “This estimate had not been done in a complete way before,” he said. “You must look past just medical costs.”

“People often don’t think of food-borne illnesses as a big problem,” Scharff said. “We have these outbreaks every once in a while, but many of the illnesses that occur, don’t get picked up by the media, even when people die from them.”

The average individual spends $1,085 on an illness, according to the study.

Millions sickened, thousands die

There are approximately 76 million cases of food-borne illnesses a year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 300,000 result in hospitalizations and 5,000 in deaths.  More than 19 million food-borne illnesses a year are attributed to produce, according to the Produce Safety Project’s study, accounting for $39 billion of the $152 billion in annual costs.

The study examined 27 different pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, parasites and unknown agents. “The USDA had looked at a number of pathogens, but their most notable studies only examined around seven types,” Scharff said.

While bacteria including campylobacter, salmonella, and E. coli were responsible for a large number of cases across the U.S., most cases were attributed to unknown pathogens.

California ranked highest for number of cases and total cost – $18 billion annually for more than 9 million cases – followed by Texas, New York, and Florida. Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan were ranked 5th through 8th consecutively for total amount spent on produce related illnesses nationwide.

“One highlight of this report is how big the produce problem is, compared to the overall problem,” Scharff said. “I think it is bigger than a lot of people in the past, would have thought.”

New Jersey had the highest medical cost per case at $162, a figure that includes hospitalizations, drugs, and visits to doctors. Montana had the lowest at $78 per case.

Scarff attributed the variabilty to regional differences in food choices, medical fees, and labor costs.

Federal safety standards await Senate action

The Food and Drug Administration is establishing food safety standards for the growing, harvesting, and packaging of produce, according to the Produce Safety Project.

The House of Representatives has passed the “Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009,” which would increase the Food and Drug Administration’s authority to monitor food safety, including more frequent inspections of food processing plants, as well as greater authority for mandatory product recall and creating produce safety standards.

The bill is waiting for approval from the Senate.

[The House bill seems dead in the Senate, which has taken no action on it since August of last year. A similar Senate bill, the “FDA Food Safety Modernization Act,” was recommended by committee in late 2009 for a full Senate vote, but may have stalled out as well. – Ed.]

Food-borne illnesses are not something society should have to worry about, says Jaydee Hanson, policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. Hanson advocates a greater role for the federal government in policing the food supply.

“Yes, we should trust that [businesses] are handling food safety,” says Hanson, echoing a famous quip by President Ronald Reagan. “But we need to verify that they are doing it.”

This article was originally published by Great Lakes Echo, and is used and adapted with permission under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Great Lakes Echo is a project of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.

Image credit: / CC BY 2.0

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