WOOSTER, Ohio — Foodborne illnesses cost the country an estimated $152 billion annually in the form of medical bills, time off from work and a reduced quality of life, according to a study released today (March 3).
Written by Ohio State University’s Robert Scharff, an assistant professor in consumer sciences and a researcher at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, the study calculates national and state-by-state costs associated with illnesses and the pathogens that cause them.
Foodborne illnesses cost Californians the most, at $18.6 billion. New York is third at $10.4 billion, Pennsylvania is fifth at $6.7 billion and Ohio ranks seventh, at $5.8 billion.
Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the death toll each year at 5,000 and 325,000 hospitalizations, with approximately 76 million new cases of food-related illness occurring in the U.S. each year.
In a teleconference with media March 2, Scharff and representatives from Georgetown University’s Food Safety Project and the Make Our Food Safe coalition talked with reporters about what the new information means, and gave an update on the progress of food safety policy in Washington.
“It is our job to go to war against foodborne illnesses in this country,” said U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. “We literally cannot afford to wait; the public is scared on the issue of food safety.”
Concerned over safety
Washington-based Make Our Food Safe cites a CBS News series poll that found only one in three Americans feels the food they buy is safe. The study comes at a time when policy makers are considering national reform to food safety standards, especially with produce.
The report finds produce linked to the largest number of outbreaks resulting from FDA-regulated foods. For E. coli alone, 39 percent of outbreaks and 54 percent of illnesses were linked to FDA-regulated food items.
For the past couple years, national programs have been proposed to adopt a national food safety standard, especially for leafy greens produce like lettuce and spinach.
California formed a regulatory plan in 2007 called the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. More than 100 handlers representing 99 percent of the volume of leafy greens are members.
Can one-size fit all?
But growers in Ohio and other places are concerned what effect a national plan could have, and whether it would put growers out of business. Ohio and Pennsylvania are home to the world’s largest populations of Amish and Plain communities, which account for a significant percentage of produce grown in those states.
Many of their production practices differ from other states, because they use horse-drawn equipment and rely on small, local markets to sell their products.
Ohio growers, with support of Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association, are leading a project to form a multi-tier regulatory program for the state, which would address every grower from the large, commercial operation, to the much smaller, “mom and pop” operations.
Currently, two growers could use different, but acceptable practices, said Karl Kolb, project manager for the newly formed Ohio Fresh Produce Marketing Agreement.
But if a national standard does not take this into account, one grower could be unfairly penalized.
He said the industry doesn’t need more regulations; it just needs better training. Although some food inspectors are knowledgeable, many more do not understand how to properly do inspections, he said.
“We have good standards now,” Kolb said. “All we need is a good set of inspectors who know how to apply them.”
More updates to this story are being made.