Foodborne illness proves dangerous and costly

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SUBMITTED BY MARTHA FILIPIC OSU Extension Office February 23, 2009


COLUMBUS -- Ohio State University researchers have derived new, more accurate estimates for the cost of foodborne illness in Ohio. To do so they developed a method for more comprehensively measuring the social cost of foodborne illness that could become the standard model used nationwide.

Using the new model, the best estimate of the annual cost of foodborne illness in Ohio is approximately $4.1 billion. This represents an annual cost of $355 for each Ohio resident.

Robert Scharff, researcher with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, presented the new model at the Society for Risk Analysis annual meeting in Boston in December. Two articles using the model, "Economic Cost of Foodborne Illness in Ohio" and "Evaluation of an Educational Intervention Using the Enhanced Food Safety Cost-of-Illness Model," are published in the January issue of the Journal of Food Protection.

The importance of the method and results for policymakers is clear. "In a time of tightening budgets the ability to conduct thorough evaluations demonstrating the value of programs that may be targeted for cuts is crucial," Scharff said.

In the past, estimates of the cost of foodborne illness have been based on a method that focuses on a small subsample of "important" pathogens, Scharff said, accounting for fewer than 4 million of the estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness Americans experience each year. These estimates have not typically included important social costs such as the lost quality of life an afflicted individual experiences from pain and suffering.

"Anyone who has ever suffered from a foodborne illness knows that pain and suffering should be included when estimating these costs," Scharff said. "Undergoing several days of intestinal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea is clearly a cost for the individual afflicted with such symptoms."

Scharff, who is also an assistant professor of consumer sciences in the College of Education and Human Ecology, says the new model offers several advantages which includes all 26 distinct foodborne pathogens reported in the landmark 1999 analysis, "Food-related illness and death in the United States" published in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases, as well as those caused by unknown agents.

It also estimates distinct costs for specific pathogens, with higher costs for serious foodborne illnesses such as listeria and botulism, and lower costs for milder diseases, caused by pathogens such as Campylobacter or Norwalk-like viruses. The value of having this level of detail is highlighted by the current Salmonella outbreak. Each illness from Salmonella imposes a cost of just over $4,800, as opposed to a cost of almost $1,700 for the average case of foodborne illness. Consequently, Scharff explained, health officials choosing between allocating resources to a program targeted at reducing illnesses from Salmonella and one that reduces illnesses from Bacillus cereus (at a value of $350 per case) would only be able to justify allocating these resources to the latter if they could demonstrate that they could avert nearly 14 times as many cases of Bacillus cereus.

It provides a template that can be used to estimate costs on a state-by-state basis. The template accounts for differences in consumption patterns, food safety practices and climate, all of which affect the incidence of foodborne illness, as well as state-specific costs of medical care (including medication, doctor visits and hospitalization) and lost quality of life and productivity (including lost work days, pain, suffering and deaths) associated with foodborne illness.



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