New data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Economic Research Service attempt to put a price on the cost of major foodborne illnesses in the United States. Rather than interpreting the data, USDA’s economic unit has released spreadsheets for 15 major pathogens in the U.S. that are together responsible for more than 95 percent of the illnesses and deaths from foodborne illnesses in which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can identify a pathogen cause. For each pathogen, the data provide a range of potential costs, taking into account such factors as associated outpatient and inpatient expenditures for medical care and lost income. In examining the data sheets, found here, Food Safety News has used the mean range and added the costs for all 15 pathogens to reach these conclusions:

  • Foodborne illnesses are annually costing the economy more than $15.6 billion, or about one-half of the $32 billion the World Health Organization says the Ebola outbreak will cost the world economy.
  • Each year, more than 8.9 million Americans will be sickened by one of the 15 pathogens, with more than 5.4 million of those illnesses due to the stomach-churning, but usually short-lived, Norovirus.
  • Foodborne illness sends 53,245 Americans to hospitals annually, which is where the majority are when infections take the lives of 2,377.

Data made available Oct. 7 were built by USDA economists on top of CDC estimates of the incidence of foodborne disease, the use of peer-reviewed synthesis of data on medical costs, publicly available wage data, and economic, medical, and epidemiological literature. According to the authors:

  • The data product provide federal agencies such as USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) with a set of consistent, peer-reviewed estimates of the costs of foodborne illness that can be used in analyzing the impacts of federal regulation.
  • It also provides other stakeholders and the general public with a means of understanding the relative impact of different foodborne infections in the U.S.
  • Cost estimates of foodborne illnesses have been used in the past to help inform food-safety policy discussions, and these updated cost estimates will provide a foundation for economic analysis of food safety policy.

The new estimates may produce some debate because they are lower than other recent estimates. More recent research has come up with lower numbers for both foodborne illnesses and their costs. From 1999 to 2010, CDC estimated there were 76 million cases of foodborne illnesses annually, sending 325,000 to hospitals and resulting in 5,000 deaths. Those numbers were scaled back in 2010 to 48 million cases, 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Economic burden cost studies by Ohio State University followed CDC estimates down and were reduced to $77.7 billion in 2012, down from $152 billion in 2010. Economic costs studies, however, are not the whole story. They do not include food industry costs, including any loss of consumer confidence in a brand or a business, associated recall expenses, or charges stemming from litigation, nor do they include the cost to taxpayers for local, state, and federal health agencies that respond to outbreaks. Here are the 15 pathogens included in the USDA study, along with the mean figure for the economic burden they represent. Campylobacter (all species) – $1,928,787,166 Clostridium perfringens – $342,668,498 Cryptosporidium parvum – $51,813,652 Cyclospora cayetanensis – $2,301,423 Escherichia coli O157 – $271,418,690 Non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli – $27,364,561 Listeria monocytogenes – $2,834,444,202 Norovirus – $2,255,827,318 Salmonella (nontyphoidal) – $3,666,600,031 Shigella (all species) – $137,965,962 Toxoplasma gondii – $3,303,984,478 Vibrio parahaemolyticus – $40,682,312 Vibrio vulnificus – $319,850,293 Vibrio (all other non-cholera species) – $142,086,209 Yersinia enterocolitica – $278,111,168 The data for each pathogen are found on an Excel file detailing disease outcomes for each pathogen, together with associated costs, technical notes and documentation, and links to associated research projects and publications.