New study estimates foodborne illness costs U.S. $152 billion annually, building momentum for FDA food safety reform bill as foodborne illness victims prepare to lobby Senate

Foodborne illness is costing the U.S. $152 billion annually, according to a new report released by the Make Our Food Safe coalition Tuesday.

The report is helping to build momentum for S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, a bill that has been stalled in the Senate for months behind health care reform.

The study found that the costs of foodborne illness are significantly higher than previously thought. Previous government estimates have ranged between $6 and $35 billion.

The new study, published by the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University, is a more comprehensive analysis of costs. “The reason our number is so much greater is because it looks at all the pathogens,” said Robert L Scharff, a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) economist and the lead author of the paper, who noted that recent studies have focused on only a few common food pathogens.

Food safety advocates say the study is further proof the bipartisan food safety legislation can no longer wait.

“This report shows that if we could work to eliminate pathogens in common food products, it would go a long way toward reducing health care costs,” Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told USA Today.

Yesterday, newspapers from Los Angeles to Des Moines discussed the study’s findings. So did Time, BusinessWeek, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as countless blogs.  

The study is causing many mainstream media outlets to again discuss the need for legislation to increase the mandate and authority of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over 80 percent of the food supply–virtually all food except for meat, poultry, and processed eggs, which fall under USDA jurisdiction.

The House passed its version of the bill in July. The Senate has yet to vote on the measure, but the Make Our Food Safe coalition, which includes public health, consumer, and industry groups, is actively working to get it on the schedule.

As part of its coordinated campaign, the coalition is hosting a food safety action day on Capitol Hill today. Forty five foodborne illness victims from 24 states will meet with their senators to advocate for S. 510.

“The system is completely broken at this point,” said Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety at the Pew Charitable Trusts, on CNN’s American Morning yesterday.

“What we have is a low over 70 years old and hasn’t been updated in many decades, we have legislation that has broad bipartisan support. It’s bottled up in the senate,” said Olson. “We really need the system to be modernized and we need the law to be modernized and the Senate could do it really pretty quickly if they got around to it.”

Though consumer and public health advocates are optimistic many key pieces are falling into place in the Senate, there is still uncertainty over exactly when the full Senate will consider the bill. 

An interactive state-by-state guide to foodborne illness costs from the report is available here.