Report: Food illnesses cost U.S. $152 billion

YAKIMA, Wash. —Food-borne illnesses, such as E. coli and salmonella, cost the United States $152 billion annually in health care and other losses, according to a report released today 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. Recent outbreaks have resulted in large recalls of peanuts, spinach and peppers.

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 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.

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, which 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.

"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.