“We tend to think of food-borne disease as 24 hours of diarrhea and it’s over,” said J. Glenn Morris, the director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida and one of the authors of the study. “What this shows is that there are diseases that have significant other manifestations, that result in complications, even death. And as a result, the public health burden is so much greater.”
The food contaminant that causes the most economic damage is campylobacter in poultry, which sickens more than 600,000 people and costs society $1.3 billion a year, the study found. In second place is toxoplasma in pork; that parasite poses a particular danger for pregnant women and costs an estimated $1.2 billion a year.
While relatively few people get ill from toxoplasma compared with more common bacteria such as salmonella, when a pregnant woman is sickened, the results can be devastating in terms of lifelong disability for her baby or even loss of the fetus, Morris said.
Listeria in deli meats was ranked third, at a cost of $1.1 billion a year.
Together, the 10 most expensive pathogens associated with specific foods cost the U.S. economy $8.1 billion a year, the study found.
Salmonella was flagged as the bacterium that causes the most disease overall, resulting in $3 billion in annual costs. Besides contamination in poultry, salmonella can be found in produce, eggs and other foods. Morris and the other researchers recommend that the U.S. Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration form a joint strategy to reduce salmonella contamination.
The federal government estimates that one in six Americans gets sick every year from food-borne illnesses. Most suffer mild symptoms and recover on their own, but more than 100,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.
Policymakers at the USDA, which regulates meat, poultry and some egg products, and the FDA, which oversees the rest of the food supply, should consider the economic burden on society when deciding how to direct food safety resources, Morris said.
“You can begin to use these more sophisticated analytic tools, which can serve as the basis of spending public dollars in terms of food safety,” he said.
Despite the heavy public health burden of campylobacter in poultry, the USDA only recently set standards for that bacterium in chicken and turkey. The standards will take effect in July and place limits on the amount of campylobacter in poultry products that are processed in a slaughterhouse. The agency also tightened the existing standards for salmonella in poultry.
The fact that half of the most costly food pathogens are found in meat suggests that food safety laws at the USDA need an overhaul, similar to the new powers Congress approved for the FDA last year, said Carol L. Tucker-Foreman of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.
“In the desire to get support for modernizing FDA’s food safety laws, I think the discussion slighted the public health dangers associated with meat and poultry,” Tucker-Foreman said.
“By definition, the slaughter of meat and poultry products is always a high risk,” Tucker-Foreman said, “and if you get contamination coming out of the slaughterhouse, you increase the risk it will get through to consumers at the end.”