Foodborne illness costs $152 billion annually

WASHINGTON Thu Mar 4, 2010 10:46am EST

Bundled spinach is pictured in a cooler at a wholesale farmer's market in Washington September 15, 2006. U.S. supermarkets cleared shelves of bagged fresh spinach after the Food and Drug Administration warned the produce could be the source of a deadly E. coli outbreak across the nation. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Bundled spinach is pictured in a cooler at a wholesale farmer's market in Washington September 15, 2006. U.S. supermarkets cleared shelves of bagged fresh spinach after the Food and Drug Administration warned the produce could be the source of a deadly E. coli outbreak across the nation.

Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Foodborne illnesses cost the United States $152 billion in health-related expenses each year, far more than prior estimates, according to a study released by consumer and public health groups on Wednesday.

Food safety advocates are hoping the study will boost efforts in Congress to overhaul the nation's antiquated food safety system that has seen consumer confidence plunge.

In recent years, the food supply has been battered by a series of high-profile outbreaks, many involving produce, such as lettuce, spinach, peppers and peanuts, leading to a rash of illnesses and even death for consumers.

Dozens of pathogens, many of them unknown, creep into the food supply each year. The price tag includes medical costs, lost productivity and quality-of-life, according to a study from the Produce Safety Project.

"This is significantly more than previous official estimates and it demonstrates the serious burden that foodborne illness places on society," said Sandra Eskin, a spokeswoman with Make Our Food Safe Coalition, a group of consumer, public health and other groups pushing for stronger food safety laws.

The latest study to delve into foodborne illnesses comes as Congress works to craft legislation that would mark the first major overhaul of the food safety system in 50 years.

The House passed its bill last July and the Senate, which has been bogged down with healthcare and regulatory reform, is expected to act this year.

The goal is to bring the food safety bill to a Senate vote around the Easter break and get it to President Obama by May, said Senator Tom Harkin on Tuesday during a hearing on agricultural appropriations. Harkin is the head of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which unanimously approved a food safety bill in November.

"My hope... is that the sobering numbers of this report will compel the Senate to act immediately on food safety legislation," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who has vigorously pushed for food safety reform. "We literally can not afford to wait."

Past official government estimates of health-related costs of foodborne illness have ranged from $7 billion to as much as $35 billion, but they considered only limited costs and pathogens, according to the report.

The new study, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts and Georgetown University, considered a total of 27 known pathogens --such as salmonella and listeria -- and looked at more health-related costs, pushing the price tag to $152 billion.

Overall, foodborne illness costs related to produce were responsible for $39 billion of that total.

Many firms including Kellogg Co, whose company lost nearly $70 million in products from the recent peanut recall, and ConAgra Foods have been among those affected.

An estimated 76 million people in the United States get sick each year with foodborne illness and 5,000 die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study found Kentucky had the lowest cost per foodborne case at $1,731. Alternatively, greater exposure to higher cost pathogens pushed the price tag to about $2,008 per case in Hawaii. The average cost in the United States was $1,851.

Typical medical costs from a case of foodborne illness range from $78 in Montana to $162 in New Jersey with much of the difference due to physician and hospital charges. The average productivity loss from a case of foodborne illness is between $377 in Mississippi and $924 in Delaware.

(Additional reporting by Chuck Abbott; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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