YAKIMA, Wash. — Food-borne illnesses, such as E. coli and salmonella, not only take a toll on American consumers' health, they cost the United States $152 billion annually in health care and other losses, according to a report released Wednesday by a food safety group.
The report comes as the U.S. Senate considers legislation that would require more government inspections of food manufacturers and give the Food and Drug Administration new authority to order recalls, among other things. The House passed a similar bill last year.
The government estimates 76 million people each year are sickened by food-borne illness, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized and about 5,000 die.
Food contamination affects both small regional firms and massive international corporations. Recent outbreaks have resulted in large recalls of peanuts, spinach and peppers. In 2008 and early 2009, salmonella contamination in peanut butter crackers and peanut paste sickened 714 people in 46 states and prompted the largest recall in history. In just the last few months, contamination fears have sparked numerous recalls, including onion soup mixes , salami , and Nestle raw cookie dough . In addition, theFDA warned Kellogg about tainted Eggo frozen waffles .
The financial cost determined in the new report published by the Produce Safety Project, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, was significantly higher than the $35 billion reported by the Agriculture Department in 1997.
That analysis looked only at some health costs related to a handful of pathogens, said author Robert L. Scharff, an Ohio State University assistant professor of consumer sciences and former Food and Drug Administration economist.
Scharff’s study examined government data on all food-borne illnesses and included a broader set of economic losses. They included the costs of emergency and ongoing medical care, pain and suffering and death. Exposure to a food-borne pathogen can cause diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps within 12–72 hours. Although most people exposed to salmonella or other bacteria in food recover within a week without treatment, serious, long-term illnesses can occur , including seizures, coma or lingering paralysis.
The peer-reviewed report also assigned costs to food-borne illnesses whose source was not identified, which the federal government estimates is more than three-fourths of all cases.
The report did not include costs associated with food recalls or to industries involved, which are also substantial, Scharff said.
“The take away message from the report is that this estimate demonstrates that food-borne illness is a serious burden to our society,” said Sandra Eskin, director of Pew Charitable Trusts’ food safety campaign. The group is a member of the Make Our Food Safe coalition that includes other public health and consumer safety groups pushing for food safety legislation.
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., called the costs “shockingly high” and said the U.S. needs to reduce the risk of these preventable illnesses.
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“If people can’t engage in this issue because of the humanitarian aspect or the public health aspect, maybe they’re willing to listen because of the economic aspect,” she said in a conference call with reporters.
The Agriculture Department inspects meat and poultry and shares inspection of eggs with the FDA. The FDA inspects most other foods, but at least 15 government agencies are a part of the food safety system.
The Agriculture Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Dr. Jeff Farrar, FDA’s associate commissioner for food protection, said the agency had not had an opportunity to review the report.
“We welcome all contributions toward a better understanding the impact of food safety in the United States,” he said. “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 Associated Press contributed to this report