New Study Estimates Annual Health-Related Costs from Foodborne Illness in U.S. is $152 Billion

A new study by a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) economist estimates that the total annual health-related costs of foodborne illness across the nation is $152 billion annually four times that of earlier estimates calculated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This total is based on an FDA cost-estimate approach: health-related costs are the sum of medical costs (physician services, pharmaceuticals, and hospital costs) and losses to quality of life (lost life expectancy, pain and suffering, and functional disability). It includes the costs of medical bills, lost wages and lost productivity. (Note: These are health-related costs only. An aggregate economic impact total that included losses to food manufacturers and distributors involved in recalls would be significantly higher.)

The Produce Safety Project, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts at Georgetown University, published the new report, Health-Related Costs from Foodborne Illness in the United States. The report ranks states according to their total costs related to foodborne illness and cost per case for an individual, which is $1,850 on average nationwide. The ten states with the highest costs per case are: Hawaii, Florida, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, the District of Columbia, Mississippi, New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Information for every state in the nation is available here.

"The costs associated with foodborne illness are substantial," says report author Robert L. Scharff, a former FDA economist who is now an assistant professor in the Department of Consumer Sciences at The Ohio State University. "This study puts the problem of foodborne illness in its proper perspective and should help facilitate reasonable action designed to mitigate this problem."

The findings come after what seems like a long, continuous stream of outbreaks of foodborne illness involving everything from pot pies and peanut butter to cookie dough and pepper. (And the problems aren't ending any time soon. Currently, government officials are weighing what some are calling an "avalanche of food recalls" now that salmonella has been found in the hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HP) produced by a Nevada company and shipped to scores of North American foodmakers over the past five months.)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now estimates that approximately 76 million new cases of food-related illness resulting in 5,000 deaths and 325,000 hospitalizations occur in the United States each year.

Clearly, gaps in the food-safety system are causing considerable health and economic impacts. Updated, comprehensive food-safety legislation is long overdue, and I'm eager to see lawmakers approve measures aimed at improving the safety of our food supply chain. Of course, the food industry is accountable, as well, and the line between profit and responsible corporate behavior must be reasonably drawn.

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