WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Food-borne illnesses cost the United States $152 billion a year, a tab that works out to an average cost of $1,850 each time someone gets sick from food, a report by a former Food and Drug Administration economist says.
"A lot of people don't realize how expensive food-borne illnesses are," says Robert Scharff, a former FDA regulatory economist and now a professor of consumer science at Ohio State University. "It's important for the public to understand the size of this problem."
Scharff worked with government estimates that there are 76 million food-related illnesses a year, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.
The costs include medical services, deaths, lost work and disability. They are based on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA.
His report, paid for by the Pew Charitable Trust's Produce Safety Project and Georgetown University, comes as the U.S. Senate gets ready to vote on comprehensive food safety legislation. The House passed its food-safety bill in July.
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Scharff hopes policymakers can use his methodology to determine which regulations would give the biggest bang for the buck. "This makes it easier to do a risk-based approach," he says.
Though the FDA had not had an opportunity to review the paper, Jeff Farrar, its associate commissioner for food protection, says: "We welcome all contributions toward a better understanding of the impact of food safety in the United States. The cost of food-borne illness is undoubtedly high and underscores the need for rapid passage of bipartisan legislation to provide new food safety tools for FDA."
The three most expensive illnesses for the nation were campylobacter, common in poultry, at $18.8 billion; salmonella at $14.6 billion; and listeria at $8.8 billion. Both salmonella and listeria are found in multiple foods.
In terms of individual cases, some types of food-borne illness are more dangerous and expensive than others. The most expensive were vibrio vulnificus, from shellfish, at $3,045,726 per case; listeria at $1,695,143 per case; and botulism, from improperly canned foods, at $726,362 per case. Costs include medical services, death, disability, and pain and suffering.
That means "consumers are spending $85 billion on the consequences of unsafe food for every $1 billion the government is spending to prevent it," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety coordinator for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "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."