COLUMBUS — Ohio State University researchers have derived new, more accurate estimates for the cost of foodborne illness in Ohio.
To do so, they developed a method for more comprehensively measuring the social cost of foodborne illness that could become the standard model used nationwide.
Using the new model, the best estimate of the annual cost of foodborne illness in Ohio is approximately $4.1 billion. This represents an annual cost of $355 for each Ohio resident.
Robert Scharff, researcher with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, presented the new model at the Society for Risk Analysis annual meeting in Boston in December 2008.
Two articles using the model, “Economic Cost of Foodborne Illness in Ohio” and “Evaluation of an Educational Intervention Using the Enhanced Food Safety Cost-of-Illness Model,” are published in the January 2009 issue of the Journal of Food Protection.
The importance of the method and results for policymakers is clear.
“In a time of tightening budgets the ability to conduct thorough evaluations demonstrating the value of programs that may be targeted for cuts is crucial,” said Scharff, who began working on this methodology as an economist with the Food and Drug Administration between 1999 and 2002.
In the past, estimates of the cost of foodborne illness have been based on a method that focuses on a small subsample of “important” pathogens, Scharff said, accounting for fewer than 4 million of the estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness Americans experience each year.
These estimates have not typically included important social costs such as the lost quality of life an afflicted individual experiences from pain and suffering.
“Anyone who has ever suffered from a foodborne illness knows pain and suffering should be included when estimating these costs,” Scharff said.
Scharff, who is also an assistant professor of consumer sciences in the College of Education and Human Ecology, said the new model offers several advantages.
One advantage is it includes all 26 distinct foodborne pathogens reported in the landmark 1999 analysis, Food-related illness and death in the United States, published in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases, as well as those caused by unknown agents.
It estimates distinct costs for specific pathogens, with higher costs for serious foodborne illnesses such as listeria and botulism, and lower costs for milder diseases, caused by pathogens such as Campylobacter or Norwalk-like viruses.
The value of having this level of detail is highlighted by the current Salmonella outbreak that has caused a minimum of 50 cases in Ohio so far.
Each illness from Salmonella imposes a cost of just over $4,800, as opposed to a cost of almost $1,700 for the average case of foodborne illness.
Consequently, Scharff explained, health officials choosing between allocating resources to a program targeted at reducing illnesses from Salmonella and one that reduces illnesses from Bacillus cereus (at a value of $350 per case) would only be able to justify allocating these resources to the latter if they could demonstrate they could avert nearly 14 times as many cases of Bacillus cereus.
It provides a template that can be used to estimate costs on a state-by-state basis.
The template accounts for differences in consumption patterns, food safety practices and climate, all of which affect the incidence of foodborne illness, as well as state-specific costs of medical care (including medication, doctor visits and hospitalization) and lost quality of life and productivity (including lost work days, pain and suffering and deaths) associated with foodborne illness.
In addition, Scharff used the new methodology to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of the Ohio Family Nutrition Program, a federally funded nutrition program which targets food-stamp recipients and other low-income residents with education; including food safety education.
For this analysis, Scharff took into account a number of factors, including “spillover” effects, which assume program participants may share new food safety knowledge with others, and participants may prepare meals for others.
In addition, he accounted for the age profile of program participants, nearly a quarter of whom are older than the general population and have greater risk of foodborne illness, and food-safety education efforts are unlikely to be permanent, with additional education needed periodically.
Scharff’s calculations estimate the Family Nutrition Program more than pays for itself in reduced cases of foodborne illness.
Under the most plausible assumptions, he finds benefits are almost nine times as great as costs for the food safety component of the program.
Even under extremely conservative assumptions (for example, not including spillover effects) benefits are greater than costs.
“This demonstrates Family Nutrition Program’s investment in food safety education is a beneficial use of taxpayer dollars,” said Scharff. “As state budgets contract and federal dollars are increasingly contested, these types of analyses are going to become more important.”
Lydia Medeiros, food safety specialist with Ohio State University Extension and co-author on the paper, said the methodology will help inform taxpayers about how much foodborne illnesses cost the state, and how much can be saved by supporting food safety education programs — both important issues today.
“This is exactly the kind of cost/benefit calculation food safety educators across the nation have been looking for,” said Medeiros, who also holds a research appointment with OARDC and is a national leader in food safety education.
“We know what we do is valuable, but it’s more important than ever to show that in terms of dollars and cents.”
Medeiros also is a professor of human nutrition in the College of Education and Human Ecology.
Also co-authoring the article is Joyce McDowell, leader of OSU Extension’s Community Nutrition Programs and associate professor of human nutrition.