Foodborne Pathogens Highly Expensive, Study Shows

Four pathogens – Campylobacter, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, and E. coli – have cost Americans approximately 7 billion dollars annually in medical expenses, lost productivity, and premature death, according to a recent government study by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS). Salmonella alone, according to the ERS, generates an annual economic cost of approximately $2.65 billion. But other, larger studies, like those of Ohio State University’s Dr. Robert Scharff, have placed the annual cost of food poisoning at closer to between $52 billion and $78 billion in the U.S. alone. And while the gap between the ERS study and those of Dr. Scharff is large, there are significant differences in the various studies that must be taken into account. First, Dr. Scharff calculates the costs of all food poisoning, not just those associated with the four pathogens Campylobacter, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, and E. coli. And in fact, of the 48 million estimated annual cases of food poisoning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) attributes over 58% to Norovirus alone, and 11% to Salmonella, 10% to Clostridium, 9% to Campylobacter, and 3% to Staphylococcus aureus. In short, the ERS study only looks at four common bacteria that together are responsible for less than 23% of the foodborne illness cases in the U.S. annually (these four pathogens do account for approximately 54% of the hospitalizations for food poisoning and 53% of food poisoning fatalities).

Another significant draw-back in the ERS study is that it looks strictly at economic costs, while the most recent Dr. Scharff study accounts for medical costs, but then “replaces the productivity loss estimates with a more inclusive pain, suffering, and functional disability measure based on monetized quality-adjusted life year estimates.” Dr. Scharff’s most recent study places annual cost of food poisoning in the U.S. at closer to $77.7 billion. The study, which was published in the Journal of Food Protection, replaces his previous estimate of $152 billion. The previous estimate appeared in the doctor’s 2010 report. According to Dr. Scharff, the previous estimates were based upon older CDC estimates that there are 76 million cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. annually, along with 325,000 hospitalizations leading to 5,000 deaths. The CDC recently replaced these 1999 estimates with its current estimations of 48 million cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. annually, along with 128,000 hospitalizations leading to 3,000 deaths.

Dr. Scharff says that the “economic only” costs of food borne illness in the U.S. today is about $52 billion, including medical costs, lost wages, and premature death.

The issue has not gone entirely unnoticed in the halls of our government. U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), stated “overall, the costs are shockingly high.” Sharing her assessment, Pew Health Group’s Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety, pointed to gaps in the food safety system, stating “in challenging economic times we cannot afford to waste billions of dollars fighting preventable diseases after it is too late.”

Produce Related Food Borne Illness Represent Largest Share of Costs

What products were the most common sources of food poisoning costs? According to Dr. Scharff, produce-related foodborne illnesses accounts for nearly half of the annual cost, at $39 billion. This, says food safety lawyer Ron Simon, is understandable, given very recent outbreaks of Cyclospora (a parasite) linked to salad mix and cilantro from Mexico, a recent E. coli outbreak lined to Schnuck’s Market’s salad bars, and recent outbreaks of both Salmonella and E. coli linked to different types of sprouts. “Unfortunately, the commonly held belief that most food poisoning comes from meat and dairy is simply not true,” Simon stated, adding “it can be the food we see as the most healthy that is often infected, such as the Organic Anti-Oxidant blend of frozen berries from Townsend Farms, sold at Costco across the West Coast, that caused hundreds of illness from Hepatitis A this last year.” Unfortunately, Simon explains, food poisoning is usually the result of poor food handling, and often traced back to food handlers that allowed feces to get into the food. And unfortunately, most pathogens cannot be seen, tasted, and have no discernible odor.

According to the study by Dr. Scharff, Vibrio vulnificus had a cost-per-case of $3 million, the most expansive, while Bacillus cereus had the lowest cost-per-case at $226. In terms of geography, Hawaii had the highest cost per capita, followed by Florida, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. The lowest cost-per-capita fell to Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and Kentucky. Dr. Scharff also estimated the costs to US taxpayers, finding an annual cost of $19 million for Campylobacter and $15 million for Salmonella related illnesses.

According to Simon, who has represented thousands of victims of food poisoning, “when we represent victims in these outbreaks, we not only look at the medical costs of their illnesses, but also the lost wages and productivity, the pain and suffering, and in many cases, the need for future medical intervention.” “The truth is,” Simon added, “these are preventable costs, and one very important aspect of my job as a food poisoning lawyer is to identify the weaknesses in our food production system and to force reluctant companies to spend the money necessary to fix them.”