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Food Safety Report Scares Up New Data

Attempting to quantify the health-related costs associated with foodborne illness is, at best, an inexact science. There are so many variables to weigh. Some, like medical expenses and lost wages, are fairly obvious and easy to calculate. Research can reveal some pretty concrete numbers for those types of factors.

What about pain and suffering? Or the cost of financial burdens placed on a family whose primary wage-earner died as the result of a foodborne pathogen?

This “Big Picture” approach was taken with the new report: Health-Related Costs from Foodborne Illness in the United States (no mistaking the topic here, eh?). The study was authored by Robert Scharff, an assistant professor in the Department of Consumer Sciences at Ohio State University (and a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration economist). The report itself was sponsored by the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University.

The most astounding revelation in this study is that Scharff came up with a new number for the cost of foodborne illness: $152 billion. What makes that figure such an eye-opener? Past official government estimates have topped only $35 billion.

“The cost of foodborne illness is significantly greater in this report than in some past studies, but only because this study included costs of all pathogens and a more comprehensive measure of economic cost,” wrote Scharff in the report. “It is my hope that the improvements made here will lead to better decision-making, both at the legislative and regulatory level.”

The Produce Safety Project was established for the very purpose of accelerating food safety policy, which includes getting the FDA and other involved agencies to establish mandatory and enforceable safety standards for domestic and imported fresh produce.

The FDA seems to be moving in that direction. Just last month, in response to President Obama’s creation of the Food Safety Working Group, it invited all stakeholders in the fresh produce industry to submit comments on preventative controls for pathogens and fresh produce. The release of the report also comes as the U.S. Senate prepares to vote on a comprehensive food-safety bill (the House version was passed last July).

Every year, it’s estimated that 76 million Americans are sickened by eating tainted food – and 5,000 of these people die. The food industry has done plenty to address the problem, particularly those in the produce business. But numbers like these demonstrate that legislation alone is not enough; neither is a self-regulation. A concerted, multi-disciplinary strategy that pools the resources of government and industry, public and private entities, is the only solution to such a pervasive problem.