Foodborne illness poses a $77.7 billion economic burden in the United States annually, according to a new study published in the Journal of Food Protection.

The new estimate is significantly lower than the oft-cited $152 billion figure, which was calculated by Robert Scharff, a consumer science professor at Ohio State University, in 2010. The new study, also by Scharff, reflects the most up-to-date estimates on foodborne illness by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to estimate total annual health-related costs.

As Scharff notes in his study (Journal of Food Protection, subscription required), the new CDC foodborne illness estimates, though still concerning, are significantly lower than previously thought, thus making earlier economic estimates outdated and “obsolete.”

A 1999 CDC study — which was widely cited until last year — estimated that each year there were 76 million cases, 5,000 deaths, and 325,000 hospitalizations caused by foodborne pathogens. The latest study from CDC estimates that each year there are approximately 48 million cases, 3,000 deaths, and 128,000 hospitalizations.

Using the new data, Scharff’s study utilizes two models to estimate total health-related costs.

The basic cost-of-illness model includes economic estimates for medical costs, productivity losses, and illness-related death. Using this basic model, Scharff estimates the total annual cost is $51 billion.

The enhanced model “replaces the productivity loss estimates with a more inclusive pain, suffering, and functional disability measure based on monetized quality-adjusted life year estimates,” according to the study. Using this enhanced model, Scharff estimates the total annual cost is $77.7 billion.

The numbers may sound daunting, but they do not represent the total economic burden of foodborne illnesses. The study does not include costs to the food industry, including reduced consumer confidence, recall losses, or litigation, nor does it included the cost to public health agencies, local, state, and federal, that respond to illnesses and outbreaks.

  • Roxanne Pearce

    I wonder if the decline in cost is directly related to the lack of health insurance? And if that lack of health insurance keeps people from seeking medical advice and they suffer at home without getting treatment? Just something to think about.

    • Gazel_le

      This also makes one wonder if too many times people seek medical treatment because it is “free” when they would be just as well off recovering at home…
      On too many occasions when I sought medical advice I was offered a prescription that not only didn’t work any better than home remedies but gave me side affects that were as bad or worse than the original symptoms and I suppose the “comfort” that I had nothing more serious. 
      Everyone would benefit from making proactive health choices and not making decisions for seeking medical treatment based on the out of pocket cost but rather on the NEED which is best achieved by having a basic knowledge of symptoms that require medical attention, listening to your own body, drawing on past experience, and, using common sense.

  • I agree with Roxanne. However, as the recent victim of food poisoning (self inflicted accidentally due to mushroom allergy) I did not seek treatment because; 1.) I know I am allergic to mushrooms, tried eating around them in some hot and sour soup and only had two small teaspoonfuls. 2.) I thought I would feel better in a few hours 3.) After 12 hours it seemed after the fact to go to the ER — however I could have died. On the converse, I feel parents take their children far more often than they would take themselves. Adults are less apt to gamble $1,000 on an er bill for themselves. Jan Leasure,