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March 3rd, 2010
11:31 AM ET

Health cost of foodborne illness staggering

By Stephanie Smith
CNN Medical Producer

The term "foodborne illness" is relatively new. It was coined over the past few decades. Yet humans have been infected by cryptic-sounding pathogens like Campylobacter jejuni, Escherichia coli O157, Listeria monocytogenes, and Cyclospora cayetanensis for millennia."The first description that we have of symptoms associated E. coli 0157 infection goes all the way back to the Bible," said Mansour Samadpour, a microbiologist and food scientist at the University of Washington. "These are not new bacteria by any stretch of the imagination. What is new is our proclivity for quantifying how we co-exist with these gnarly pathogens.

A new report by the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University estimates that the health-related cost of foodborne illness in the U.S. at $152 billion per year (see state by state breakdown from the group Make Our Food Safe here).

 As it turns out, $152 billion is nothing to scoff at.

"This is a problem," said Robert L. Scharff, the study's author and former economist with the Food and Drug Administration.

The gravity of the problem begins to sink in when it is compared to previous cost estimates of foodborne illness, which ranged from $6.5 to $35 billion per year, according to government data compiled by the University of Georgia Center for Food Safety.

This new report casts a wider net. It includes obvious things like the financial cost of medical care, loss of life and missed workdays; also less-tangible costs like pain and suffering, and costs to others in society.

The Make Our Food Safe Coalition - a group of ten public health and consumer organizations - considers this new report fodder for more stringent food safety laws.

According to the group: "Continued outbreaks of foodborne illness over the last several years - from spinach to peppers to peanut products - have demonstrated that these outbreaks are not random, unpreventable occurrences, but are due to widespread problems with our food-safety system."

For a scientist like Scharff, the numbers are a tool, a remedy of sorts.

"The value of these numbers is to look at what type of benefits we can attain if we prevent these illnesses," said Scharff, currently an assistant professor in the Department of Consumer Sciences at Ohio State University. "If we invest $10 billion in a program that reduces illness by 10 percent, then cost savings to society would be $15 billion, so that would pass a cost benefit test."

The numbers most people care about: 76 million cases of foodborne illness each year, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Numbers do not lie, and what they suggest is that foodborne illness is an ongoing problem.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.

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