March 3, 2010

Risky business – food poisoning cost Americans $152 billion annually

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With a couple of Washington and Oregon state cheese recalls fresh in our memories this month, and a history of fatal E. coli poisoning that swept through a Washington state fast food chain in the 1990s, we should pay attention to a new report that food-borne illnesses such as E. coli and salmonella cost this country $152 billion annually in health care and other losses.

The report, from the Pew Charitable Trusts, is much higher than the earllier figure of $35 billion reported by the Agriculture Department in 1997. The illnesses sicken some 76 million people annually.

Include in that list a college student from South Carolina, hospitalized for a week in May after developing an E. coli 0157 infection from eating a bite of packaged chocolate chip cookie dough. That strain of bacteria can cause severe illness, kidney failure and even death. The suspected source of contamination: flour, and the company, Nestle, recalled the refrigerated product after illnesses in 28 states, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Not all are so lucky as college student Margo Moskowtiz. The government estimates that 5,000 of those who become ill die.

New food-safety legislation would give the federal Food and Drug Adminstration new powers to enforce food safety laws and prevent food contamination. The House has passed a new food safety bill, and the measure awaits a full vote in the Senate.

“Food-safety advocates are hoping that a compromise measure will become law this year, which would allow the FDA to heighten its inspection of imported food, set safety standards for fresh produce, force companies to recall tainted products, and require companies to keep better production records,“ Laura Landro writes in the Journal’s "Informed Patient" column.

The Pew report comes on the heels of a report out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest this fall that identifies the 10 riskiest foods for consumer health as leafy greens, eggs, tuna, oysters, potatoes, cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts and berries.

Most food-borne illnesses are caused by produce. Thirty-nine percent of E. coli outbreaks were due to produce regulated by the FDA, according to the Pew study, conducted by the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University.

Steven Reinberg, writing in U.S. News and Health Report, noted that the Pew report used the same statistical methods used by the FDA.

The numbers are larger than previously reported because "this report looks at a comprehensive set of all the pathogens that cause food-borne illness," said report author Robert L. Scharff, an assistant professor in the Department of Consumer Sciences at Ohio State University. Earlier reports looked at only a few pathogens, he noted.

"The ‘costs’ of food-borne illness can be measured in millions of cases of suffering, and thousands of deaths each year in the U.S.," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. "Frankly, that has always been enough to convince me we should be doing more to address this problem. But if it hasn’t convinced you, maybe the price tag in a more conventional currency will: more than $150 billion a year."
 

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