WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Foodborne Illnesses Could Cost U.S. $15 billion

Oct 14, 2014

Americans had to dig deep into their wallets to cover costs associated with foodborne illnesses, according to new estimates from the U.S. Department Agriculture.

There were 9.4 million identified cases of foodborne illnesses in 2011 – caused by pathogens like norovirus, listeria and salmonella – according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Add up the cost of hospitalization, medication and lost wages due to missing work, and that comes to a total bill of about $15.2 billion.

Pathogens that can cause foodborne illness are often ingested by incorrectly cooked meat.
Credit taryn/Flickr

USDA economist Sandra Hoffman says 95% of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. are caused by just 15 different pathogens. Indeed, she says five pathogens alone are responsible for 84% of the foodborne illnesses across the county.

“Knowing what different pathogens cost gives us an idea of where the biggest problems are and how to focus them,” she said. “Just knowing the number of illnesses isn’t enough because illnesses vary a lot in how serious they are.”

Researchers estimate the vast majority of foodborne illnesses aren’t diagnosed – about 38 million cases – leaving the potential price tag even higher.

Hoffman says data from the USDA report helps draw attention to the need for public investments in state departments of public health and the disease surveillance efforts by the CDC.

“Without those investments, we have no idea how many people are getting sick,” she said. “And without better attention to that, we won’t have a way of knowing what’s causing the illness for those 38 million people.”