In 2006, I almost died after eating spinach contaminated with E. coli. I spent nearly a month in and out of multiple emergency rooms and urgent care facilities. When I was able to return home, I had lost nearly 20 percent of my total body weight, and my recovery lasted five additional months of continuous treatment.More info
Foodborne illness is a serious public-health problem in the United States. In 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that approximately 76 million new cases of food-related illness (resulting in 5,000 deaths and 325,000 hospitalizations) occur in the United States each year . More recent data on sporadic illnesses and outbreaks suggests that this problem is not going away [2, 3].
At the same time, the aggregate economic cost of health losses associated with foodborne illnesses has not been sufficiently examined. The few studies that provide cost estimates are incomplete and/or based on limiting assumptions . For example, most cost estimates include only a few, if any, of the long-term health outcomes associated with acute foodborne illnesses . The derivation of an accurate cost-of-illness measure for foodborne illness is important as a guide to policymakers who seek to allocate scarce resources to programs designed to improve the health of Americans. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that, in 1999, the same year of the CDC estimate, the federal government spent $1 billion on food safety efforts, while state governments spent another $300 million . Without a good measure of the scope of the problem these funds are targeted towards, it is impossible to determine whether such expenditures—which are even more substantial a decade later—are reasonable.
In this study, I use the Scharff et al. (2009) enhanced food-safety, cost-of-illness model to provide a more complete estimate of the aggregate health costs from foodborne illness in the United States . This approach is an improvement over past studies because it takes into account illnesses from all pathogens identified by Mead et. al. (1999); includes measures for health losses that are not included in many past studies; and presents uncertainty using confidence intervals and a sensitivity analysis. The methodology follows principles used by economists at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the two primary food-safety agencies in the United States.
The primary objective of this study is to provide policymakers with measures of the economic burden of foodborne illnesses, both at the aggregate level and at the pathogen-specific level. The derivation of a measure for the aggregate health costs of foodborne illness is useful as a means of evaluating the importance of this problem relative to other pressing health problems. I do not include every cost associated with foodborne illness. Instead, I focus on costs of acute foodborne illnesses and a few long-term health-related costs. Costs to industry from reputation externalities and recalls are significant, but are not covered here. Nevertheless, my best estimate for the cost of foodborne illness in the U.S. is $152 billion a year. This suggests that foodborne illness continues to be a significant problem in the United States. Below, I present estimates of the cost of foodborne illness, both at the aggregate and pathogen-specific levels. I also examine how this cost of illness is distributed across the states. More detail about the methodology used can be found in Appendix B.