The Impact of Foodborne Illness
Foodborne illness is a serious public health issue and the cost to American society is high. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 6 Americans are sickened (48 million), 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year from food-borne illnesses. Children, the elderly, pregnant and post-partum women and individuals with compromised immune systems are at highest risk of developing complications from food-borne illness.
Camplyobacter is one of the most common causes of diarrheal illness in the United States, causing approximately 2.5 million illnesses and 1,000 deaths each year. Almost 20% of all reported cases occur in children under the age of 10 and the incidence in children under the age of one is twice that in the general population. Approximately 1 out of every 1,000 illnesses will result in Guillian-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune reaction that causes paralysis and kills between five and ten percent of its victims.
E. coli O157:H7 and Other Shiga-toxin Producing Pathogens
E. coli O157:H7 and other shiga-toxin producing pathogens cause an estimated 73,000 illnessses and 61 deaths each year. Nearly half of all reported cases occur in children under the age of 15. Approximately 2% to 7% of all illnesses will result in Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), a relentless condition characterized by cascading organ failure that can cause its victims to have seizures, strokes and heart attacks. Many HUS patients require spleenectomies, repeated blood transfusions, and even intestinal reconstruction and one-third of HUS survivors will suffer life-long medical problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney failure and brain damage. Children under the age of 5 and the elderly are at highest risk of developing HUS. In fact, HUS caused by E. coli O157:H7 and other foodborne pathogens is the leading cause of acute kidney failure in children in the United States.
Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium found in ready-to-eat products, causes an estimated 2,500 illnesses and 500 deaths each year. While healthy adults and children are rarely sickened by listeria, it is a different story for the elderly, people with weakened immune systems and, in particular, pregnant women and newborns. Pregnant women are 20 times more likely to develop listeriosis than healthy people and about 1/3 of reported cases occur in pregnant women. Furthermore, listeriosis kills more than 1/3 of perinatal victims. Newborns affected with listeriosis will frequently suffer from sepsis or meningitis. It is recommended that pregnant women should not eat hot dogs or deli meats unless they have been reheated to steaming and that all soft cheese products should be avoided.
Salmonella causes approximately 1.5 million illness and 600 deaths each year. More than one third of all cases occur in children under the age of 10 and the incidence for children under the age of 1 is 10 times higher than that of the general population. Children are at increased risk of infection with antibiotic resistant strains of Salmonella and are at greatest risk of severe complications. Furthermore, salmonella is one of the leading predictors for reactive arthritis, a painful, chronic and potentially debilitating condition that causes joint inflammation.
The Economic Cost of Foodborne Illness
According to one USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) report, “Foodborne illnesses account for about 1 of every 100 U.S. hospitalizations and 1 of every 500 U.S. deaths.” The ERS also estimates that, each year in the United States, just five foodborne illnesses – Camploybacter, Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes and Toxoplasma gondii - cause $6.9 billion in medical costs, lost productivity and premature deaths. That is a pretty steep figure, yet it does not reflect any of the hidden costs that victims and their families suffer: the cost of traveling to receive medical care, time lost from work caring for sick family members, lost leisure time, or the intense pain and suffering that accompanies serious foodborne illness. And the acute stage of foodborne disease can be only the start of the problem. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates 2 to 3 percent of foodborne illness victims develop secondary long-term medical complications resulting in over 1.5 million lingering health problems per year.
The Emotional Cost of Foodborne Illness
And what about the hidden costs of foodborne illness? Serious foodborne illness is a traumatic experience that, regardless of the outcome, will change your life forever. First of all, no one expects that a previous healthy person could become deathly ill by eating food. Even when they are informed about the severity of the disease, they find it hard to believe. Actually, it isn’t until someone sees their loved one on dialysis or a respirator that they begin to understand that they are fighting for their life. At that point, no one is thinking about medical expenses, loss of work or the long term emotional impact.
And then there are the losses you can’t put a price on. The parents of a four year old are informed that their child will likely need a kidney transplant before she is fifteen. A perfectly healthy six year old loses her pancreas, becomes a diabetic and has to take 40 pills a day in order to eat. A nine year old is terrified to go to sleep for fear she will never wake up again. A college freshman loses her hair and is told that her kidneys would never survive a pregnancy. A two year old child dies. The price of foodborne illness is simply too high.
- Buzby. Food and Rural Economics Division, Economic Research Service, USDA. Children and Microbial Foodborne Illness. Food Review, Vol 24, Issue 2.
- Buzby, Frezen, and Rasco. Food and Rural Economics Division, Economic Research Service, USDA. Agricultural Economic Report No. 799: Product Liability and Microbial Foodborne Illness.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov
- Economic Research Service, USDA. Foodborne Illness Cost Calculator, www.ers.usda.gov
- Frezen. Economic Research Service, USDA. The Economics of Food, Farming, National Resources and Rural America, www.ers.usda.gov
- Shea, Katherine, MD and the Committee on Environmental Health and Committe on Infectious Diseases. Nontherapeutic Use of Antimicrobial Agents in Animal Agriculture: Implications for Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics, n.d., p. 8 of 24.http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/114/3/862