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Foodborne illnesses in US carry $77.7B price tag

Foodborne illnesses in the United States have a price tag of $77.7 billion a year in terms of economic burden, according to an analysis by Ohio State professor Robert Scharff.

The release of new data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2011 estimated that in the U.S., 48 million people suffer from foodborne illnesses each year, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths from 31 identified pathogens as well as unspecified agents. Scharff, an economist and researcher with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) applied the numbers to his own model, created in 2010, in order to find a more accurate figure in his new analysis, which was published in the January 2012 issue of the Journal of Food Protection.

“The basic purpose of the study was a couple of things,” Scharff said. “First of all, to try to figure out what the burden of illness is so that it could be used in policy making. Both in terms of looking at cost-per-case so you can deal with specific interventions, but also looking at the total burden so we can see as a nation how big this problem is relative to other problems.”

In 2010, Scharff applied his model using the previous the CDC data from 1999, arriving at a total cost of $151.6 billion associated with foodborne illnesses. The seeming drop in overall costs from 2010 to 2011 is mostly due to a change in methodology from the 1999 to the 2011 the CDC data, Scharff said.

Variables included in other analyses are medical costs, productivity losses and costs associated with death. Scharff’s model adds the value of pain and suffering.

“In my opinion, the enhanced method is better,” Scharff said. “Let’s put it this way, if you don’t include pain and suffering, you’re saying that people that have a painful foodborne illness, and are sick for several days, but don’t miss work or go to the doctor, there’s no impact, and that’s not true. Obviously there is a cost to society from people being sick whether they use resources or not.”

Doug Powell, professor of food safety at Kansas State University, said that behind medical costs, productivity costs associated with incapacitation from illness is one of the largest burdens foodborne illnesses create.

Andrew Barry, a masters student in food science and technology and president of OSU’s Food Science and Technology Club, said the cost to industry might outweigh some of the factors included in this analysis.

“Some of it isn’t necessarily a medical cost,” Barry said. “A lot of the costs, from a company standpoint, come from brand recognition. So anytime there’s any sort of safety issue dealing with food, there’s going to be a big hit to the company.”

Scharff said he’s considering the idea of analyzing the cost to the industry that would encompass these issues.

Though the analysis doesn’t look directly at causes of foodborne illnesses, it reiterates that food safety is a big problem in the U.S. for health and financial reasons. Whether the action is taken by policy makers, food producers or consumers, there are cost benefits associated with each.

“Food safety is a farm-to-fork responsibility, and everyone has a responsibility to use the best knowledge available to inform their food safety decisions,” Powell said.

Barry said ultimately it’s important for consumers to be aware of what foods they’re buying and the precautions that should be taken, and hopes Scharff’s analysis and ones like it will prompt food production companies to be more vigilant.

“This study helps with having more up-to-date science behind the regulation,” Barry said. “Hopefully, it makes companies more aware of the risk they take. You have some companies that are ahead of policies, like the Food Safety Modernization Act. Some are lagging behind, so hopefully this analysis will give those companies that are lagging a little push, because it’s not just a policy, there are real numbers.”

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