The health-related cost of foodborne illness in the United States is $77.7 billion, according to a new study in the Journal of Food Protection (2012; 75(1):123-131).
That’s approximately half of the widely quoted $152 billion cost calculated in 2010, but it’s not necessarily due to improved food safety. The study bases these new numbers on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) latest estimate that 48 million cases of foodborne illness with 3,000 deaths annually occur each year. Those numbers were revised down from the 1999 CDC estimate of 76 million cases with 5,000 deaths each year. The author of the report, Robert L. Scharff of Ohio State University, cautioned that: "Total cost figures are useful as measures of the scope of the problem, but the numbers do not by themselves provide economic justification for any particular program aimed at reducing foodborne illness."
Even though it often seems to grab the most headlines, E. coli doesn’t account for the lion’s share: the O157:H7 strain’s infections were estimated at $635 million a year, and non-O157 strains of Shiga toxin–producing E. coli added another $154 million. The top three costliest bugs are Salmonella ($11.39 billion cost in illness per year), Campylobacter ($6.88 billion) and norovirus, which tends to occur in foodservice settings, (3.68 billion). Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that might be present in uncooked or undercooked meats, cost $3.46 billion. Listeria monocytogenes came in at No. 5 with $2.04 billion in sickness related costs.
What’s more, this analysis tallies up costs for medical care, productivity losses, deaths, pain, suffering and functional disability, but not any long-term resulting health effects. Nor does it include the price paid by the food or foodservice industries to issue a recall, dispose of product and/or clean up their act, or public health agencies that have to investigate the outbreaks. Or the PR campaign to restore a company’s reputation, if indeed it is salvageable. And it certainly doesn’t monitor the after-effects that a major crisis can have on sales or even a whole industry. For example, last year’s Listeria outbreak in cantaloupe in Colorado that caused 30 deaths depressed U.S. cantaloupe consumption by 53%, according to one consulting firm, Perishables Group. It didn’t matter that most cantaloupe aren’t even grown in Colorado, but in California and Arizona. After all, perception is everything.
To underscore the critical nature of food safety, federal officials released a progress report on the work of President Barack Obama's Food Safety Working Group in December. On the heels of the one-year anniversary of the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the report outlined its “ 2011-12 Agenda and Beyond,” which includes a focus on preharvest food safety, preventive control standards, retail food safety, modernized food-safety inspections and safety of imported products. Among the steps announced are a zero-tolerance policy for six additional strains of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli in 2012, and a new “test and hold” policy.
While there have been some complaints about government intrusion (from both the left and the right), our industry has been generally receptive to these measures. After all, we can pay for it now in terms of prevention, or we can all pay for it later. Remember what they say about an “ounce of prevention.”
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